What U.S. human trafficking laws mean for immigrants in the U.S. and U.S. Latina/os

In September, 2011 the U.S. Sentencing Commission revealed that over half of the people (50.3 %) newly sentenced to federal prisons are “Hispanics,” although the government estimates that “Hispanics” make up only 16 % of the U.S. population. The report explains that immigration-related crimes have driven the increase in federal imprisonment of Hispanics in the last decade. The relevant immigration crimes include 1) Crossing the U.S. borders without inspection; 2) Smuggling; 3) Re-entry after deportation; and 4) Violations of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. People have crossed the borders of the U.S., aided others’ journeys, and brought material goods or animals into the country for as long as the borders have existed. Human-trafficking – depending on what studies you believe – is either a new phenomenon or a newly recognized one.

This project examines federal anti-human trafficking acts of the last eleven years: the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 and the legislation re-authorizing that act in 2003, 2005, and 2008. Because the crimes these laws are ostensibly designed to prevent are so repugnant, and because campaigns against trafficking have emphasized the most disturbing crimes of all – sexual trafficking of children – few people have asked the necessary, difficult questions. Moreover, immigrant advocates have been consumed with critical issues such as the DREAM Act, state and local anti-immigrant initiatives, ordinances, and the need for comprehensive immigration reform. When there are bright, appealing young people to send to college, why would immigrant advocates and their allies choose to appear to be defending traffickers who sexually exploit children?

Immigrant and civil rights advocates, however, ignore federal laws that affect immigrants – even if justified by the need to prevent horrific acts – at a high cost. Serious questions abound. First, if slavery, in particular sexual trafficking, is as widespread as claimed, is this a new phenomenon, or only a newly recognized one? Second, what conditions gave rise for either the increase in trafficking or the increased recognition of trafficking? Third, if protecting vulnerable people – whether exploited sexually, or in domestic, agricultural, or manufacturing work – is the primary goal, should policies focus on identifying and prosecuting traffickers; or on supporting laborers to whom rudimentary federal labor protections have never applied? Fourth, given the existence of numerous federal and state laws against kidnapping, forced servitude, child abuse, sexual assault, and prostitution, did anti-trafficking statutes fill gaps in the law, or provide law enforcement with redundant tools?

This project investigates the effects of U.S. anti-trafficking laws on immigrant communities. Does enforcement of anti-trafficking laws interrupt a twenty-first century slave trade; or do such laws primarily serve to promote prosecution of “regular” immigrants identified in the course of raids ostensibly directed against traffickers?

Finally, this project asks: Why trafficking now? What are the political and affective currents producing the explosion of “community” groups and “online movements” against modern-day slavery and human trafficking? What is the appeal of the call to “activism” defined principally as “raising awareness” — and what are the effects of these forms of “organizing” on participants and politics?

— Virginia Raymond