Migrants at Risk: How U.S. Policies Facilitate Human Trafficking

Migrant farm workers in California (USDA/Flickr)

Human trafficking is in the news nearly every day. The most recent high-profile case unfolded when a federal grand jury indicted Indian consular officer Devyani Khobragade for presenting false information to U.S. authorities to obtain a visa for her child care provider, Sangeeta Richard. The diplomatic firestorm set off by Khobragade’s arrest shed a bright light on how easily migrant labor exploitation, in the United States and elsewhere, can tip into the realm of trafficking.

One might expect that all this media attention reflects a wider effort to crack down on trafficking. But a limited legal definition of “trafficking” means that a scarce few cases have been prosecuted. In fact, fewer than 4,000 men and women have been formally designated as trafficked to the United States. This number obscures not only the tens of thousands of forced labor victims whose cases go unreported, but the millions of migrants who face comparable abuse—just not enough to fit the legal definition of trafficking. It’s impossible to tell the story of trafficking without telling their story, too.


Trafficked people are men and women from all over the world whose plans to migrate for work go terribly wrong. Promised a livelihood abroad, many instead find themselves earning less than minimum wage (Sangeeta reportedly worked over 100 hours a week for some $1.42 an hour), living in cramped conditions, and facing physical threats from their employers. Working under conditions of “force, fraud or coercion” technically qualifies them for trafficking visas (T visas) to stay in the United States. But migrants’ rights and workers’ rights organizers and attorneys acknowledge that the 4,000 assisted to date are just a fraction of those in forced labor. The U.S. government estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 persons work in forced labor conditions. Why, then, have so few been assisted in the fourteen years since the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA)? Why do those in forced labor conditions not come forward? And why don’t more community members blow the whistle on exploitation when they see it?

Part of the answer lies in our current immigration enforcement policies. By creating a punitive deportation regime, the Obama administration has made it harder to locate trafficked persons and to assist them. The U.S. government undoes one set of policies as it enforces another; it holds out assistance to an exceptional few and handcuffs to the many.

Over the past ten years I have followed the lives of dozens of men and women who were among the 4,000 T visa recipients. In a new book, Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States, I document their experiences in and after forced labor, and contend that the paltry number of T visas is the result of a contradictory set of policies. Rigorous enforcement of immigration laws, nearly 2 million deportations, and the intimidation of migrant workers, have profound consequences for the fight against trafficking. At the same time, everyday forms of exploitation are normalized as part of doing business in many low-wage labor sectors.

A Continuum of Migrant Labor Exploitation

Trafficking into forced labor exists on a continuum of exploitative labor practices. For many undocumented workers—and some workers with temporary work visas—low pay, no pay, unsafe work conditions, job insecurity, and the absence of clear channels for redress are routine. Forced labor blends into this environment of everyday abuse. Trafficked persons typically are not physically restrained. Rather, as they pick tomatoes or wash dishes or sew clothes alongside other migrant workers, they appear to be working under the same conditions as their coworkers. What distinguishes them is that they fear for themselves or their families if they try to leave their abuser; regardless of their particular circumstances of exploitation, they share a compromised ability to walk away. Having no passport, money, contacts in the United States, or even seasonally appropriate clothes make it hard for them to envision leaving safely, if at all.

Some who qualify legally as trafficked may not consider their labor experiences to be significantly different from those of their similarly exploited migrant peers, and rarely seek redress through T visas—which few are aware even exist. Instead, those who eventually receive a “trafficking” designation initially tend to seek legal assistance for domestic abuse or regarding their immigration status. An attorney in Florida explains that none of her trafficking clients first came to her and said, “I’m a victim of trafficking”; rather, they came seeking help to avoid deportation or protection from an abusive partner. A social worker in New York similarly explains that clients “talk about abuse, like ‘My boyfriend beat me.’ People do not talk about trafficking, ever.”

The Detention Mandate

While there is no quota to find trafficked persons, there is a quota to detain individuals: a congressional mandate requires U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to fill a daily average of 34,000 beds in detention facilities. Through policies such as the ironically titled “Secure Communities Programs,” local police function as immigration enforcement agents. Long gone are the days when “border control” was restricted to borders; law enforcement now hunts down migrants across the country. Racial profiling and arbitrary arrests are common. The result? In migrant communities, community members stay quiet about crime in their streets, exploitation in their workplaces, and abuse in their homes. In the face of the Obama administration’s deportation spree—1.9 million individuals have been deported since he took office—they avoid law enforcement at all costs.

The Obama administration ramped up a longstanding practice of ICE raids at worksites where undocumented workers were presumed to labor. These raids sent clear messages to exploited workers to not report abuse. They also have torn apart families and communities. During an ICE raid in 2008 at a meat-processing plant in Postville, Iowa, agents apprehended 389 undocumented workers and charged, convicted, and sentenced nearly three hundred of them within ten days. Group trials were held at temporary fairgrounds. The prosecutor and the chief judge coordinated closely before the raid to hasten the process and structure plea agreements, in a process the American Civil Liberties Union described as highly irregular. A translator at the plant later reported that in some cases, both parents were picked up and small children were left behind for up to seventy-two hours.

Secure Communities programs and 287(g) programs—which empower local police officers to check the immigration status of individuals stopped for other possible violations—have critically damaged trust between migrant communities and law enforcement. And the threat posed by chronic fear of detection, detention, and deportation is hardly restricted to the workplace. A community organizer in Los Angeles told me about a teenage girl who was raped by a neighbor who then threatened that he would report her family to immigration if she told anyone.

Communities Under Siege

This widespread abuse of both documented and undocumented migrants, often in communities with a long history of racial discrimination, has prompted labor organizers and civil rights leaders in certain counties to describe their situation as life under “Juan Crow.” The Southern Poverty Law Center reports, “Like African Americans during the height of Jim Crow, many Latinos in the South live in constant fear of being unfairly targeted by the police as they go about their daily lives. Just the simple acts of driving to work or taking a child to a soccer match can result in intimidation or abuse—regardless of a Latino’s immigration status.” Several of those interviewed by the SPLC described the South as a “war zone” for immigrants. A grower in North Carolina put it more plainly still: “The North won the War on paper but we confederates actually won because we kept our slaves. First we had sharecroppers, then tenant farmers and now we have Mexicans.”

“With or without documentation,” an attorney representing low-wage workers in the South told me, “no matter how you arrange it, it’s not a level playing field. The workers don’t have a life. One grower said to me, ‘Why would I want a U.S. worker? He may have to take off work to take his kids to the doctor.’”


Racism, disenfranchisement, and unchecked employer control quickly translate into a labor system of extraction, exploitation, and intimidation. In California’s Central Valley, for example, growers operate knowing that labor inspectors will not be paying a visit. In these more remote areas, an attorney I spoke to estimates that “it would take about forty years to reach all the farms with the current number of government inspectors.” Consequently, the lawyer reports, “workers are mistreated everywhere. Historically, these growers have been Neanderthals in their approach to labor. These are people whose families fought against the elements. They survived by exploiting others. This is the way they have done their business. They’ll be damned if the law is going to get in their way.” Referencing the historical loopholes in the Fair Labor Standards Act, the attorney asks, “How do you change a system that has survived where abuse can happen legally? The abuse is rooted in the system, in our separate laws for agriculture where workers have to work ten-hour days and get paid no overtime. Big ag businesses do not suffer penalties if they get caught. There is no real penalty to change their ways.”

Ironically, the lack of government oversight is precisely what drives so many undocumented workers to keep working in these remote areas in the first place. “Workers may be abused in places like the Central Valley,” explains a worker-organizer, “but it may be better than having an ICE presence. Workers know they won’t get harassed after work. A bad situation is a hell of a lot better than going to jail and getting deported.”

The persistent threat of detention and deportation is at clear odds with campaigns to prevent trafficking, which rely on timely reporting of abusive employers from migrants themselves. And as more states pass Arizona- and Alabama-style anti-immigrant legislation, and localities continue to enact and enforce policies that target migrants, men and women in forced labor are only likely to be pushed further into the shadows.

Exiting Trafficking

Under the contradictory logic that undergirds U.S. immigration policy, it takes truly exceptional circumstances for trafficked individuals to achieve any measure of justice—even if the conditions they face are far from exceptional. My conversations with some formerly trafficked persons who did achieve legal redress illustrated this all too clearly. I met many domestic workers who, for years, did not walk out of unlocked doors and agricultural workers who continued working in abusive conditions. Why? Since they did not know that they might qualify for T visas, leaving their abusers meant risking detection and arrest. Leaving involves other risks as well: no pay, loss of one’s passport, and threats to families back home. Some calculate that waiting—for pay, for the return of their passport, for some kind of escape plan to become possible—is better than walking away empty-handed with no place to go.

Flo, for example, took many months to hatch a plan. She had the help of a neighbor, a local friend of her sister’s back in Africa, and a family she had met at her church. All the deception, waiting, and uncertainty made Flo sick. “I could not eat, and my stomach hurt because I was so weak. I was crying all the time. I looked very sick the day I left.” But once she left—through an elaborate ruse that involved faking a flight home, stashing all her belongings at the neighbor’s house, and being taken to the airport with an empty suitcase by an intimidating car caravan of her abuser’s friends—she could finally find relief. She describes still being scared on the airport shuttle even though her abuser was nowhere in sight. “I was scared that maybe my employer was looking for me. It wasn’t until I woke up the next morning at my sister’s friend’s house that I realized I was free.”


Combating trafficking thoroughly would mean combating the everyday abuses of the U.S. immigration system and ending widespread migrant labor exploitation. Increasing protections for low-wage workers (particularly for those excluded under the Fair Labor Standards Act such as agricultural and domestic workers), enforcing existing labor laws, and tightening regulations on recruiters of temporary workers are all key steps in this direction.

But in today’s environment of racism, criminalization, and systematic exploitation, tightening labor regulations alone won’t resolve migrant workers’ woes. Rights-based outreach in collaboration with community members where vulnerable migrants live and work is essential to finding and possibly preventing cases of forced labor. Peer-to-peer outreach, exemplified by the skillful and creative organizing efforts of groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, Lideres Campesinas in California, Damayan in New York City, New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, and Casa de Maryland, protects workers against a range of workplace abuses, from wage theft to forced labor. This basic rights work makes up the front lines in the battle against trafficking and forced labor. There needs to be more of it.


Denise Brennan is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Georgetown University. Her book Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States is just out from Duke University Press.

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