By Megan Hope, MSW, MA
Coordinator, Social Service and Human Trafficking Projects, Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN)
I once asked Mario, a trafficking survivor and former client of our organization, what he wished people knew about human trafficking. He’s a middle-aged man who was forced, defrauded and coerced during his employment by a housing construction company. He said, “I would like people to know that if the walls of some homes could speak, they would say this place was created at great sacrifice for the comfort of others by people who were exploited, by ghosts who are often invisible to others.”
“I would like people to know that if the walls of some homes could speak, they would say this place was created at great sacrifice for the comfort of others by people who were exploited, by ghosts who are often invisible to others.”
The Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN) does a good part of our counter-trafficking outreach to people who are similarly invisible to others: adults held in the immigration detention in Aurora, Colorado. Unlike defendants in the criminal justice system, indigent non-citizens in deportation proceedings are not entitled to a government-appointed attorney. Consequently, the majority of detained respondents go without representation. To counter this, nearly every weekday a member of our staff gives a presentation to a group of detainees about their legal rights and possible defenses to deportation. Our group orientations always include information about trafficking, and we screen people individually for experiences of forced labor of any kind, including forced participation in commercial sex acts. We met Mario at one of these group orientations.
RMIAN also tries to pair as many people as possible with representation by our staff attorneys or our network of volunteer attorneys, and we offer self-help workshops for people fighting their own cases. Our Children’s Program provides similar legal orientation and access to attorneys for non-detained children facing deportation, as well as other immigrant children throughout Colorado.
Currently, many adults and children we meet are asylum seekers fleeing extortion, rape, death threats and drug-related violence in Central America or Mexico. We see that what appears to start as human smuggling can often turn into trafficking, with migrants held in drop houses on the border and forced to perform domestic work or other labor. Not infrequently, migrants – especially children – are forced to transport drugs. Like Mario, other potential trafficking survivors we encounter may have lived in the U.S. for years before being ensnared in trafficking. Their exploitation often occurred in low-wage industries dependent on immigrant labor, such as construction, hospitality, agriculture and domestic work.
Some might assume that people who seek trafficking-related immigration relief like the T or U visa in the face of deportation must be lying—especially if the claimed trafficking occurred years ago and was never reported. Perhaps. But it’s important to know that, dependent on many factors, trafficking survivors may not be eligible for release from detention and stand to wait many months for relief applications to be adjudicated. That seems like a big gamble to make for a fabricated defense. Survivors who haven’t sought immigration relief previously may not know that their experience of exploitation even has a name, let alone that it’s a benefit-qualifying crime. Mario, for example, had his labor rights violated but didn’t know all the remedies available to him. Still others have not reported trafficking due to fear, shame or trauma, or in an effort to forget what happened.
A complexity sometimes overlooked regarding trafficked children and adults is that they may be not only victims of crime, but also “offenders.” Their criminal histories may be a direct result of their trafficking experience or part of its aftermath, such as a DUI from trauma-related substance use. Certainly, the same factors that make some people vulnerable to trafficking – such as poverty, marginalization or racism – may make them more susceptible to arrest or conviction. Mario was actually arrested when he tried to report problems with his abusive employer, and we’ve seen the same thing happen to others seeking help in exploitative situations.
At RMIAN, we’ve learned from survivors like Mario that although human trafficking can devastate people, it doesn’t define them. Some survivors we’ve met don’t even consider it the worst or most significant thing that’s happened to them.
Moreover, people whose abuse, exploitation or oppression doesn’t meet the definition of trafficking have still been abused, exploited and oppressed. A myopic focus on trafficking can obscure the other types of injustice and inequality that any immigrant detainee and any migrant child may experience, whether trafficked or not. And thinking too exclusively about “trafficker” versus “victim” may blind us to the complicity we ourselves – from the comfort of our homes – share in the complex economic, political and social realities that underpin trafficking and other forms of exploitation. As Mario reminds us, to see the invisible labor of people for what it really is we have to have our eyes wide open.