This interview with Melissa I.M. Torres is part of the Women and Foreign Policy program’s Democracy, Corruption, and the Fight Against Human Trafficking Project, produced by Senior Fellow Ann Norris.
You have extensive experience working on human trafficking and spend a considerable amount of time in border communities with victims of sex trafficking and forced labor. What trends are you seeing in the region? Is it largely organized crime groups who are responsible for trafficking, or is it broader than that? What do policymakers need to know?
The issue is broader than just cartels and organized crime. Of course, they are a part of it. But I think one of the biggest misconceptions that policymakers have is that the problems we are seeing are limited to organized crime and asylum seekers/immigrants. Yes, it is a border area and there is a considerable number of immigrants who are victimized by these groups. But it is happening on both sides of the border and the perpetrators are not always smuggling from the Mexican side. There are also perpetrators on the U.S. side of the border engaged in domestic trafficking. And as we have all seen, these can include both large and small employers, individual criminals, and even people in positions of authority. We need to start focusing on the fact that there are perpetrators on this side of the border who are taking advantage of a very vulnerable community living in the underserved borderlands.
I am from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and spend a lot of time working with the population there, and I see how these communities are being completely overlooked. This is one of the poorest communities in the United States and it is just not talked about. People see the border communities and think that immigration is the only issue, and they are not looking at how these mixed status communities are living in poverty. The truth is that many people who come over the border move through these towns into places further north in the United States. But the people who call these communities home are ignored.
The borders are only looked at like some kind of immigrant territory. But it is a binational community where people are suffering. When I engage with government officials going to the border, the entire focus of the conversation is on migration, immigrants, smugglers, and cartels. And many of these people think that the biggest risk for trafficking is being a migrant. But the biggest risk is extreme poverty that creates incredible vulnerability. Many of the kids there have no real opportunity, and that puts them at tremendous risk for exploitation. I conducted a statewide study where we talked to kids in the community. Some of these kids might have been born in Mexico but were raised in the United States and these communities are their homes. And they kept talking about poverty being the biggest risk factor in their lives – they fell into an exploitative situation because they were seeking economic opportunities that they do not have access to and that a trafficker exploits. We need to stop putting all the resources into border walls and law enforcement and focus on alleviating poverty and building much better health care and education systems. This will help create opportunities people need so that they are less vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers.
The U.S. government estimates that just a few hundred of the more than 120,000 unaccompanied migrant children who ended up in U.S. shelters in 2021 were determined to have been victims of human trafficking. You believe that the actual figure is much higher, but that some children may not even be aware that they were subjected to trafficking in persons. What needs to be done to increase awareness of the crime of human trafficking, particularly for minors?
Yes, I do believe the number of children impacted by trafficking is much higher. It became clear to me that the numbers are much higher after speaking to many people at the migrant camps in Mexico and then, following their release from detention centers, at bus stops, airports or labor sites in the United States. The numbers who experienced this crime appear to be much higher than the few hundred identified by the Department of Justice (DOJ).
In this particular case, the U.S. government was in crisis mode attempting to respond to an influx of immigrants, especially unaccompanied minors. There were not enough resources, including housing, to properly care for them, and there were not enough trained personnel in place. In fact, they were actively stopping other federal projects and calling in reinforcements from other areas just to get people to help. But they were not trained or asked to follow an agreed-upon policy protocol for identification and response.
To make matters worse, there were ongoing court challenges to the Executive Orders that the Trump Administration had issued. So, the courts were often forced to put people on hold who were already in precarious situations.
What we need to do is change the way that human trafficking is talked about and to ensure that trained personnel are using an agreed-upon policy protocol as well as understand the language and cultural contexts. Too often we hear the phrase “Tráfico humano” or “traficantes” used. But the problem is that this language does not mean human trafficking in Spanish – it refers to smuggling. People are starting to understand these nuances at the federal level, but the issue remains among people who are volunteering on the ground. Consequently, I have seen it happen many times where attorneys or service providers will ask to hear about someone’s trafficking experience and the person will start talking about their smuggling experience, so then it’s assumed that their smuggling experience equaled a trafficking experience, which may not have been true. They need to use the phrase “trata de personas” instead.
When the issue is addressed appropriately the questions go deeper and are more specific. For example, the questions could be “did someone force you to go somewhere to work against your will?” or “were you forced to work for very little or no pay?” It cannot just be about exploitation because sadly the issue of exploitation has become so normalized for many of them. For example, people might be working jobs where they are not being paid but they will continue showing up for the job because there is the possibility of being paid in the future.
I have had conversations with people who clearly have been trafficked but have no idea that that is what has happened to them. I spoke with one individual who thought he was talking to me about exploitation and not trafficking, and he said, “we know that when we come here the women are used for sex and the men are used for labor and to carry drugs.” It was just something to be expected. It was so normal for him because he had heard so many stories. We need to do a much better job building awareness about the actual crime of trafficking so that more people understand when it is happening.
Finally, what we also need to think more about is the fact that unaccompanied minors are most often sent here to work. Yet, when they get here, they face U.S. laws telling them they must go to school or risk consequences. But that is generally not what the expectation is from home. Across the board, the expectation is that they will come here, find work, and send that money back home. So that creates exceptional vulnerability. You must remember that even working one day here and not being paid the next is sometimes better than what they were experiencing back home. We must address the cultural issues and the need for fair labor or opportunities for these children.
You have spoken about how the concept of being “illegal” leads to situations where many victims of forced labor, human trafficking, and other crimes do not believe that they are entitled to any rights and therefore rarely seek help or justice. Can you elaborate further on why you believe the “illegal” concept contributes to the vulnerability of migrants and asylum seekers? What language should be used instead?
The reality is that the repeated use of the word “illegal” absolutely makes people believe that they are not entitled to rights or justice. Unfortunately, I think that now even the term “immigrants” has started to translate to “undocumented,” which is frightening. As a result, the trauma and exploitation that this population endures is now almost normalized and justified. Since they come here without papers and cannot work legally, they believe they must put up with the exploitative situations they find themselves in and the countless injustices they experience along the way. There is an understanding that their identity is already criminalized because they are “illegal” and, therefore, cannot speak up about their own criminal victimization. No human being is illegal – no other human who commits a crime is ever called “illegal” because of their very presence or existence.
The reality is that so many people are often grateful when they have any job, even if there are terrible downsides. They would rather keep steady work with minimal pay, rather than risk not working and not getting paid at all. As I mentioned, people speak to me and do not know that what they are describing to me is a human trafficking situation. They are aware of the risk, but they feel that it is a part of the process, and they do not see other options. They hear these worst-case scenario horror stories and think, “well if that isn’t happening to me, I must be doing ok.” Additionally, for migrants who are aware that they have been trafficked, justice is not their priority – they are focused on survival. They are not thinking about putting the people who have exploited them behind bars. If they can get what they are owed, then fantastic. But if that entails taking more time and energy, they would rather use that to find more work. I think this is a reality for many victims of violent crime – they just want to put the issue behind them and survive.
We need to move past viewing this as just a criminal justice issue or even a public health issue and approach this from a human rights lens that is victim-centered. We need to accept that everyone has a right to a dignified life that is free from exploitation and start building better systems from that point rather than responding when it becomes an emergency.
As a follow-up to the previous question, victims rarely come forward because they do not believe they are entitled to rights and protections. But the reality is that the very institutions that are supposed to play a role in providing protections—including justice departments and police—are also involved in carrying out these crimes, either by turning a blind eye in exchange for bribes or doing things like demanding sex from migrants for passage over borders. Clearly, police and justice system reform must take place on a large scale, but are there other efforts that could help? Are nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society equipped to help victims?
There is a profound distrust of justice systems and people in positions of power. So, this is something that absolutely needs to be addressed. I often hear from sex trafficking victims that some of their best clients were police or border officials. I don’t know how large the numbers are, but even one story could lead to incredible mistrust in the community.
What we also need to do is to strengthen protections and services for victims of labor exploitation and services. If you look at the number of kids that have been identified as trafficking victims, the majority were in forced labor situations. But our response systems often focus exclusively on sex trafficking. We don’t have many services or legal recourse for labor trafficking and victims of labor trafficking, especially men. The trafficking shelters that we have are often exclusively for women and sex trafficking.
I think the fact that there is a very clear path for prosecution of sex trafficking cases compounds the problem. Sex trafficking is a prosecutable offense. But with labor exploitation and abuse it is much less clear. Yes, the most severe, violent cases will get attention. But there is very limited legal recourse for exploitation at work sites. It is interesting that sex work is criminalized, but we have done so much to separate that from sex trafficking in order to help survivors. The same lens and grace needs to be given to laborers with criminal matters – such as being undocumented or having arrests commonly associated with being houseless – who then find themselves victims of a crime. We need to have real conversations about dignified work versus abuse.
Recently, a friend of mine working in another state called me about someone who was abused by his employers in Texas. He had been beaten and hadn’t received pay in two weeks. She was looking for shelter for him, but we were unable to find anywhere for him to go. This needs to change.
As you know, the New York Times recently published the results of a massive investigation about migrant and asylum-seeking youth ending up as trafficking or forced labor victims in the United States. What are your views on efforts undertaken by the US government since the story was released? What else needs to be done?
The government has not responded with sufficient action or improved protections, which is incredibly frustrating. And to make matters worse, the Biden Administration either deliberately ignored or chose not to act on repeated warnings that children were being exploited in the months prior to the New York Times report. Furthermore, the Biden Administration is doubling down on many of the same policies that so many people were up in arms about under the Trump Administration. And at the end of the day, children are still slipping through the cracks and being exploited.
We need to start thinking differently about how we view this population. For example, everyone seems to accept that these kids are being sent here to work so that they can send money back home. No one questions that. But there is no focus on their human rights, and little discussion about getting them safely into school systems with support. This is a much different situation from being a refugee. For example, if you are a refugee, you might not have the same pressure to work as a child and earn a living to support the whole family like undocumented immigrants—including unaccompanied minors—often are. Yes, whatever they are doing here may be less dangerous or violent than what they were doing back home, but it is still exploitation, and we need to really focus on the fact that there is a double standard for these children.