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Human Trafficking Center

Immigration controls: Protecting borders to end trafficking?


May 2014


by Dana Bruxvoort, HTC associate

(This is the first post in a three-part series about migrants’ rights and human trafficking.)

Human trafficking is a rare site of public consensus, typically eliciting a visceral public reaction. This type of public concern makes human trafficking a convenient platform upon which to build support for other legislation, and immigration policy is one notable area where this has occurred. Proponents of restrictive immigration controls argue that increased border enforcement will decrease human trafficking, and they tout immigration policies as anti-trafficking measures. However, a closer analysis reveals this connection is a fallacy that ignores the complexities of trafficking and migration and too quickly determines a causal relationship when there is hardly evidence of even a weak correlation.

According to the International Organization for Migration, there are an estimated 214 million migrants worldwide, 11.2 million of which are undocumented migrants in the United States. The presence of these migrants has contributed to the proliferation of increasingly restrictive immigration policies – post 9/11, U.S. government spending on border enforcement and immigration prosecutions is at its highest in history.

There is an inherent tension that emerges when countries intending to protect migrant victims of trafficking simultaneously enforce highly restrictive and prosecutorial immigration strategies. While these efforts to crack down on “illegal immigration” are promoted as anti-trafficking measures, they can actually facilitate trafficking.

First, many cases of undocumented migrants involve smuggling, where the migrant pays a fee for a third party to take them across national borders. As militarized enforcement heightens the difficulty of crossing the border, smugglers charge migrants ever-increasing fees. Once over the border, smugglers often hold migrants in debt bondage and require them to work off the high cost of smuggling. In other instances smugglers withhold travel or work documents, increasing migrants’ dependence and rendering them more vulnerable to forced labor and human trafficking.

Secondly, restrictive immigration policies reflect the general U.S. perception that undocumented and trafficked migrants within its sovereign borders represent a breach of security. Thus, in most cases, when law enforcement officers uncover undocumented migrants they often arrest and/or deport them without first determining their status as trafficking victims. These efforts to prosecute and deport thousands of migrants overwhelm resources and divert law enforcement from identifying and prosecuting trafficking cases.

Policies favoring deportation eclipse potential victim protection measures within anti-trafficking policies. This inclination toward deportation creates a fear among migrant populations that often discourages them from reporting exploitative work conditions to law enforcement authorities. Furthermore, the threat of deportation can actually help traffickers assert control over victims who know that seeking legal recourse could lead to detention, criminal prosecution or removal from the country. Deportation can be re-victimizing, especially if migrants are ostracized from their families or sanctioned under law in their home countries. They could also face retaliation from traffickers or even be re-trafficked.

In general, if migrants who are trafficked don’t feel that police, prosecutors and the judiciary are on their side, there is little incentive to come forward and identify as being trafficked. In many cases, it appears to be in a migrant’s best interest to simply make it past the border and then avoid authorities, rather than to legitimize their status as a victim of trafficking.

While migration and trafficking are inherently related topics, claiming that immigration restrictions are a necessary means to end trafficking is a guise and a false connection. In reality, restrictive immigration policies can actually fuel the exploitation and marginalization at the foundation of the global trafficking problem, creating a culture that is not conducive to identifying and protecting victims of human trafficking. Ending trafficking requires an approach that prioritizes the human rights of migrants facing exploitation rather than simply “cracking down on illegal migration.”

*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC


Do you think strict border enforcement and immigration policies help or hinder anti-trafficking efforts? What should be the role of border enforcement in anti-trafficking efforts?


4 Responses to “Immigration controls: Protecting borders to end trafficking?”

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    […] migrants – deserve due process and protection under domestic and international law, lest they be too quickly sent back to circumstances that could cost them their lives. To send children back to life-threatening situations undermines both U.S. responsibilities under […]

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