One often overlooked aspect of the controversial issue of immigration reform is the connection between undocumented migration and human trafficking. Efforts to strengthen border security can paradoxically drive vulnerable illegal migrants into the arms of human smugglers and actually lead to an increase in human trafficking. Immigration reform debates should therefore consider the externalities immigration policies may have on human trafficking.
Since tighter U.S. border security has made border crossing more difficult, many migrants have sought the help of smugglers and subsequently been subject to their ever-increasing fees. These fees put migrants in the vulnerable position of reliance on the smugglers to follow through on their promises to get them across the border undetected. While many smugglers operate under business models, maximizing profits by bringing their clients to their final destinations safely, others exploit the vulnerabilities of their clients. When elements of force, fraud, or coercion are introduced, clients can easily find themselves in a position in which they have been trafficked. In one example, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigated a case where 24 Mexican women who paid coyotes to smuggle them into the U.S. were consequently exploited and forced into sexual exploitation on the East Coast through threats of violence. The connection between human trafficking and human smuggling is unsurprising, since human trafficking is often linked to similar crimes such as document forgery, fraud, vehicle theft and drug and arms trafficking.
So why are human smuggling and human trafficking missing from immigration reform debates? One reason is that there are still many challenges to investigating a trafficking case, particularly when it involves other forms of illicit activity. Although the U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement has launched a special program designed to combat trafficking through smuggling, it can be difficult for law enforcement to determine whether people are voluntarily smuggled into the country or are trafficked against their will. Thus, migrants who might have experienced trafficking are often arrested for illegally crossing the border and sent back to their home countries without determination of their status as victims of human trafficking. Once deported, migrants may have difficulty acquiring special nonimmigrant T-visas that provide protections to trafficking victims in the United States.
While not all migrants who hire smugglers to help them cross the border are exploited, the dangers of human trafficking are substantial and should be considered by immigration policymakers. Efforts should be made to investigate the circumstances under which migrants enter the U.S. illegally to determine whether they could be eligible for victim assistance. While training materials are available to assist in identifying trafficking victims, additional resources should be allocated to law enforcement to support trafficking investigations. There should also be efforts to raise awareness about how illegal immigration and smuggling can easily lead to trafficking. We need to look past simplistic legal-illegal immigration definitions and consider how immigration policies influence responses to human trafficking cases at our borders.
*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC