Human Trafficking Policies: Ships Passing in the Night

Nearly every five to ten years the U.S. overhauls its immigration policies, sometimes giving illegal aliens a fresh start through legalization programs. What is novel about the current, serious discussion of a new illegal alien legalization program, is that it is taking place within the context of a much greater awareness of and concern over the expansion of human smuggling into the U.S. and around the world.

While most of those being smuggled are migrants who have willingly paid for the chance to work abroad in a developed country, a minority is tricked into slavery, typically ethnic minority women forced into prostitution. As a particularly coercive type of human smuggling, this is usually referred to, somewhat arbitrarily, as “human trafficking.”

Recent reports on migrant smuggling and human trafficking by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the CIA, and the State Department over the past year underscore both this growing problem and the attention from government officials this issue has received. Similarly, numerous law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad have developed special units to combat human smuggling, while programs to prevent trafficking through social marketing and victim counseling have increased enormously. For example, the INS’ “Operation Global Reach,” begun in 1997, includes offices located in 40 foreign countries with 150 agents.

U.S. legislators have responded to the growth in trafficking in women and children, with the signing late last year by President Clinton of the 2000 Victims of Trafficking and Violence Act. Through State Department and Department of Justice programs, the U.S. currently has human trafficking prevention programs in nearly every known sending region.

Reminiscent of the large antitrafficking movements of the early 1900s, all of this recent domestic interest and activity to stop human trafficking is further amplified by several UN commissions and other NGOs around the world. The upcoming 2001 UN World Conference on Racism and Other Related Intolerances will focus a significant part of its attention and final report on the growing levels of people tricked into trafficking schemes thinking they would find high-paying jobs, only to find they have become slaves. The International Labor Organization recently released a report on forced labor, devoting much attention to the topic of human trafficking.

Global Connections and Borders

As social researchers around the world have begun investigating this complex topic, in part spurred by growing levels of funding support, they are encountering one of the fundamental contradictions of our time: the enormous disparity in the legitimate mobility of the world’s peoples during, ironically, the historical apex of mutual global awareness and economic interconnectedness. The more coercive phenomenon of human trafficking into contemporary slavery is also exacerbated by multiple sets of interlocking problems, such as widening social inequality within rapidly changing regions, corrupt state officials, and gender, ethnic, and caste discrimination.

This complexity notwithstanding, the U.S. provides an important example of how most antitrafficking programs thus far have adopted a criminal model narrowly focused on identifying and stopping the immediate perpetrators and helping the victims. While official rhetoric distinguishes between migrant smuggling and human trafficking, enforcement programs make little distinction in practice as they attempt to prevent “alien smugglers” from getting migrants across the border, whether they were destined as independent workers or slaves (unbeknownst to the migrants at the time of crossing).

Yet, according to recent U.S. Census figures, a heavy reliance on high fences and high technology to discourage illegal border crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border has not had its intended effect of reducing the annual increase of successful clandestine migrations. In part, this is because a southern borderland crossing is only one of the many strategies for gaining entry, such as the use of counterfeit documents, corrupt officials, and visa over-stays.

To be sure, it is more difficult to enter the U.S. along its increasingly militarized southern border, and with Mexico’s South Plan (Plan Sur) it will become even more difficult for non-Mexicans to use Mexico as a transit country. But this has only contributed to an enormously profitable market for professional smugglers, who range from part-timers helping neighbors cross state borders to ongoing transnational criminal organizations. What has not changed is the ease with which undocumented and falsely documented immigrants can find employment once they have successfully entered the United States.

For both conceptual and practical reasons, this conventional, illicit-commodities approach to human smuggling has led to a significant overlap between anti-human smuggling and antidrug smuggling programs and techniques, including high-tech monitoring, border interdiction programs, and “just-say-no” types of education programs abroad.

Here is where the current discussion of another amnesty program for illegal immigrants, whether implemented or not, demonstrates the problem with this illicit-commodities approach to human smuggling. Consider, for example, that a similar amnesty program for the millions of illicit drug addicts crowding our prisons, or a “one-off” legalization program for the current heroin on the streets, has never seriously been contemplated, let alone implemented in the past. Similarly, foreign leaders don’t lobby hard in the U.S. to have their country’s illicit drug exports legalized. Why not?

To put it succinctly, trafficked people with complex motivations and recognized human rights are not the same as any other illicit commodity. The similarities, and increasing overlap, between the smugglers of people and of drugs must be balanced by an understanding of the enormous ethical and historical differences between the two “commodities” being smuggled. Given our human history, the right of people to move and work around the planet-so much in step with the zeitgeist of economic globalization-will always be much more compelling than the right of people to obtain and use mind-altering narcotics.

Short-Term Strategy

Narrowly drawing on other antismuggling strategies, the nearly exclusive focus of U.S. anti-human trafficking programs on capturing the smugglers and helping the victims of trafficking violence represents a convenient short-term strategy but not one that can sustain itself.

In part, this is because the adult victims of contemporary trafficking for slavery are typically complicit in some part of the lawbreaking, as they are led to believe their smugglers are simply getting them across several borders-and this is what current policies are not adequately addressing.

After all, it is completely rational for a would-be illegal immigrant to calculate that a risky clandestine journey into the U.S. does not necessarily imply a lifetime stigma, but rather a temporary status of illegality on the way to riches. In fact, large sectors of our economy are counting on it. Tragically, out of the millions of people who decide to risk their legal rights and physical safety for a chance to work in the most developed nations, a substantial minority will either die en route, or, once abroad, find that their contract with the smugglers can only be paid back through slavery.

Education and Incentives

Anti-trafficking education programs are based on the assumption that if potential migrants only knew of these dangers they would not attempt the journey. This is an optimistic assessment because the opportunities and incentives for otherwise non-criminals to break U.S. immigration laws spring from the deep wells of historical inconsistency and political expediency in the U.S. treatment of illegal immigrants.

This lesson was brought home to me when I learned of a woman in a rural village in Ecuador who had started to take birth control pills before making a grueling, overland, clandestine journey to the U.S. in the event she was raped along the way-not that she thought she would definitely become a victim.

While U.S.- and UN-sponsored anti-trafficking programs may remind her of these very real dangers, they are drowned out by the lure of making it to the U.S. in time for the next legalization program, one of the smugglers’ many selling points for their services. Far from being an empty promise, some of her neighbors in Ecuador had worked in New York City and benefited from the 1986 legalization program; with their savings from work abroad, many were able to build modern, multistory houses back in Ecuador, sparking a local migration fever that has been raging ever since.

Given the inherent technological and political challenges of attempting to limit illegal immigration-and the exploitation it often brings-through conventional border interdiction and public education programs, future U.S. and other receiving states must try to develop investment programs that offer compelling local alternatives to the risky, but often lucrative, clandestine journeys millions are now contemplating. After all, in many regions around the world, remaining in one’s own community also poses an economic and political risk, and, all too often for women and minorities, a physical danger. As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson has wisely noted, “Combating the phenomenon [of human trafficking] will require holistic, interdisciplinary, and long-term approaches which address each aspect of the trafficking cycle.”