In 1999, the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was a startling achievement in a time of deep hostility to the poor, to immigrants, and to women engaged in non-reproductive, non-marital sex. In passing the TVPA, Congress voted to provide welfare benefits and residency permits to a small class of abused and undocumented immigrants, including those engaged in prostitution. The passage of this law was all the more remarkable because it came directly on the heels of two massive “reform” measures that dramatically cut benefits to most poor Americans and legal immigrants.
Why were individuals, historically defined as criminals at risk of detention, discipline, and deportation redefined as victims deserving public support? Two key elements in the TVPA may help explain this shift. First, while the law covers severely abused and exploited undocumented immigrants engaged in all fields of work, it was inaccurately presented as primarily a response to “sexual slavery.” And, as an immigration measure, it offered conventional assurances of enhanced policing of U.S. borders, this time on the grounds that less porous borders would help protect would-be slaves who might otherwise be forced to enter the U.S. against their will.
While the TVPA may be part of an effort to restrict immigration, it is unusual in that it also offers material assistance to qualified victims regardless of their immigration status. Because of this provision, anti-immigration forces within Congress insisted that restrictions were needed to “prevent hundreds of thousands of people claiming to be trafficking victims… [leading] to a massive amnesty for illegal aliens.” The law relies on a problematic distinction between violated innocents — vulnerable women and children forced from the safety of their homelands into gross sexual exploitation — and guilty illegal economic migrants, mostly men. But most trafficking victims are also economic migrants. Their victimization often involves high debts, coercion, and abusive working conditions; misrepresenting trafficking victims as entirely passive objects obscures the complexities of the problems and the best strategies to assist them.
As Dutch anti-trafficking activist Marjan Wijers has argued, there are two ways to combat trafficking in women. On the one hand, Wijers points out, there are measures like the TVPA that rely on “restrictive immigration policies, more penalization and stronger and more effective prosecution. Repressive strategies have a strong tendency to end up working against women instead of in their favor… On the other hand, there are strategies that aim to strengthen the rights of women involved, as women, as female migrants, as female migrant workers, as female migrant sex workers.”
In the United States, the focus on enhanced policing and punitive approaches to combating trafficking continues to predominate. During the years since the passage of the TVPA, the number of border patrol agents has more than doubled and miles of new concrete-filled steel barriers, flood lights and infrared surveillance systems have been installed. The number of prosecutions against traffickers remains small (in total a few hundred) but is steadily increasing.
Whether these measures have actually helped to stem the flow of trafficking victims and other undocumented immigrants is doubtful. What is clear is that these new measures have increased the risks and costs of trying to cross the border. Ironically this may have increased the likelihood that migrants will rely on smugglers and thereby find themselves in debt-bondage or other conditions of gross exploitation. These measures have also resulted in increasing fatalities as those attempting to enter the U.S. are forced to seek out more dangerous and remote routes to avoid detection. Over the past decade alone, more than 3,000 people have died attempting to cross the border, a number more than ten times that of those who died trying to cross the Berlin Wall during its entire 30 year history.
It is also disturbing that provisions of the TVPA directly intended to assist and empower victims remain under-utilized. Despite the fact that the law authorizes the federal government to award up to 5,000 special residency permits – so-called T-visas – each year to trafficking victims, in the first four years of the program, a total of only 500 were awarded.
The Justice Department has taken the position that community activists and law enforcement don’t know where to look, or what to ask, in order to locate victims eligible for benefits under the law. But instead it may be that the image of the appropriate victim has simply been too narrowly drawn. Even though most of the identified victims of trafficking under the TVPA have not been in the sex sector but rather in domestic, agricultural and sweatshop work, anti-sex-trafficking continues to be the primary focus of the federal Office to Monitor and Control Trafficking. In order for truly effective strategies to be put into place, trafficking must be seen in the context of migration and labor exploitation, not limited to the realm of sexual abuse. Sadly, strategies that would truly strengthen rights of women, undocumented migrants, and sex workers appear remote in early 21st century America.
Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility (shma.com), Vol. 39, No. 653.