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Trump’s Human Trafficking Record Is Fake News

The U.S. government has just released a highly anticipated human rights report that whitewashes the effects of its own policies.

Shadows of migrants at a shelter in Mexicali, Mexico, en route to the United States on Nov. 15, 2018.
Shadows of migrants at a shelter in Mexicali, Mexico, en route to the United States on Nov. 15, 2018. Luis Boza/VIEWPress/Corbis via Getty Images

Since taking office in 2017, the Trump administration has claimed that its human rights agenda centers on human trafficking. “My Administration continues to work to drive out the darkness human traffickers cast upon our world,” President Donald Trump wrote in a 2017 executive order declaring January 2018 National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. In a Washington Post op-ed, Ivanka Trump echoed her father’s claims that human trafficking was one of the government’s top priorities. “President Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionist movement gave America a unique inheritance: a principled commitment to fight slavery in all its pernicious forms,” she wrote. “This administration is continuing the fight to end modern slavery and using every tool at its disposal to achieve that critical goal.”

But when it comes to identifying the reality of trafficking inside the United States and fighting it, these claims are contradicted by many of the administration’s policies and much of its rhetoric. In many key ways, the Trump administration’s approach to trafficking in the United States has made matters worse for the most vulnerable communities. Anti-trafficking experts now worry that the government, by failing to recognize its failings, could do lasting damage to what has traditionally been considered the country’s top human rights report, the latest edition of which was released Thursday.

The State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report is a collaboration between a designated office in Washington and local U.S. embassies that evaluates government responses to trafficking around the world. It provides a detailed narrative and assigns a tier ranking to governments. (Tier 1 is the highest and Tier 3 the lowest, possibly incurring sanctions.) Over the years, the TIP Report has been seen to surpass the International Religious Freedom Report and the general human rights report in impact and authority. “It’s the power of comparison that the report provides that is so effective,” said Judith Kelley, a professor at Duke University and the author of Scorecard Diplomacy: Grading States to Influence Their Reputation and Behavior. “Local embassies are very engaged leading up to its publication.”

The report has been published since 2001, after the Trafficking Victims Prevention Act (TVPA) was passed by Congress in 2000 and became the gold standard of anti-trafficking legislation. The United States started ranking itself during President Barack Obama’s administration to lend more credibility to the report. “Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton said rightfully if we’re going to point the finger around the world, we need to point at ourselves, too,” said Alison Friedman, then the TIP office deputy director. The office consulted with nongovernmental organizations and legislators; assessed funding, victim services, and law enforcement response; and analyzed methods of data collection and prevention. In the end, the United States received a Tier 1 ranking, and it has never since been downgraded.

This year’s report has just been published. Like years prior, it contains some rankings that are sure to make headlines. Denmark, Germany, and Italy have been downgraded to Tier 2 countries, while Saudi Arabia, in spite of protests from experts and news reports (and in spite of a Tier 3 ranking), was left off the report’s list of countries that exploit child soldiers. The Philippines maintained its controversial Tier 1 ranking.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the United States received a Tier 1 ranking in this year’s report. But there is ample evidence that, like Italy and Germany, the country should have been downgraded. Over the past six months, I have closely reported on the impact that the Trump administration has had on trafficking in the United States. Some of the policy changes appear small—minor tweaks to grant funding or longer wait times for visa applications—and are often weighed against more positive steps, like an increase in general funding for victims services. But, taken together, these seemingly small changes amount to a systematic dismantling of services for America’s most vulnerable communities, particularly noncitizen victims.

The TIP Report, for example, traditionally highlights LGBTQ individuals as highly vulnerable to trafficking, but the Trump administration has removed various legal protections for the LGBTQ community, particularly for transgender individuals. Rachel Lloyd, the founder of New York’s Girls Educational & Mentoring Services, worries particularly about the administration’s scaling back of protections against discrimination in housing and health care, the lack of which can often produce trafficking victims. “Forty percent of the girls we serve are LGBTQ,” Lloyd said. “They are feeling unsafe.”

Many victims of trafficking are forced to commit crimes related to their trafficking situation, like prostitution. Because of that, clearing records is crucial to a trafficking victim’s recovery. “It’s one of our most requested services,” said Yvette Butler, who until recently was the director of policy and strategic partnerships at the Washington-based Amara Legal Center. “We want people to become productive members of society.” While Congress has increased funding to victims services, Trump’s Justice Department has eliminated grants that used to fund vacaturs, expungements, and sealing of criminal records.

The administration touts prosecutions as victories against trafficking, but in fiscal year 2018 federal investigations in the Justice Department decreased significantly, from 783 to 657, as did the number of defendants charged with human trafficking. In spite of repeated calls from NGOs and advocates, highlighted in multiple TIP Reports, for the government to focus on the equally urgent problem of labor trafficking in the United States, of those federal prosecutions 213 were for sex trafficking while only 17 were for labor trafficking.

Where the administration fails most profoundly is in its treatment of noncitizen victims of trafficking. Across the world, migrants are the most vulnerable to being trafficked, and the TIP Report highlights a government’s response to migrants. This year, Denmark, for instance, was downgraded to Tier 2 in part for its lack of protection for migrants. “The government continued to focus on the undocumented status of some foreign victims rather than screening for indicators of trafficking,” it reads. It points out that Denmark was failing to provide sufficient “incentives for victims to cooperate in investigations, such as residence permits.” Italy and Qatar, both Tier 2 countries, were cited for lack of protections for undocumented and migrant workers.

Over the past six months, I’ve heard stories of noncitizen victims terrified to show up in immigration court for fear of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents waiting outside and instead choosing to live unstable, dangerous lives rather than appeal to the government for help. The administration’s highly controversial “public charge” memo, which suggests further penalizing noncitizens for using government services, has already had a reported impact on trafficking victims attempting to adjust their status, and a recently proposed anonymous immigration “fraud tip form” could be a sharp tool for traffickers. “Abusers use immigration status as their primary tool of control,” said Jean Bruggeman, the executive director of Freedom Network USA. “Creating these fraud concerns and a fraud tip form is just strengthening the ability of traffickers to control them. And all these raids—at workplaces and courthouses—the actual impact is reinforcing what abusers and exploiters are telling their victims: ‘You’re trapped. There’s nowhere for you to go. If you go to the courthouse to report me, they’ll deport you.’”

Family separation at the border creates ideal circumstances for traffickers. “We are seeing many of [the] exact situations that TVPA and other policy changes were supposed to address,” said Michelle Brané, the senior director of migrant rights and justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “Kids are realizing that [they] can’t get in on their own. We saw traffickers standing outside of detention centers and border points, ready to exploit them, saying: ‘I can help you. You can come work for me.’”

Lawsuits pending in six states allege that privately owned immigration detention centers contracted by the Department of Homeland Security are guilty of labor trafficking. “That section of the TVPA was created by Congress to get at more psychological coercion,” said Meredith Stewart, an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center. If the migrant detainees refuse to work, “they threaten to switch them into worse dorms or send them to solitary confinement,” Stewart continued. “There are threats of physical restraint and psychological coercion, exactly the kind of harm that Congress intended to prevent against when writing the TVPA.”

Although the administration has claimed that human trafficking is a priority, Trump has more often invoked the issue to further his anti-immigration goals, making noncitizens more vulnerable in the process. Trump perpetuates a false image of trafficking to bolster his argument for a border wall; he claims, for instance, that most noncitizen victims are women who are “tied up” and forced across the southern border, “duct tape put around their faces,” while in fact most noncitizen victims come in through legal ports of entry from around the world and often with valid documentation. Meanwhile, his administration has scaled back key protections for noncitizen victims that are crucial parts of the TVPA.

One of the key outcomes of the TVPA was the creation of a special humanitarian visa for victims of trafficking known as the T visa. Not only do T visas offer a lifeline for noncitizen victims of trafficking, they are a crucial law enforcement tool; often the only way to build trafficking cases is with witness testimony. Few countries provide similar support to trafficking survivors. In late 2018, the Trump administration announced that noncitizens who are denied a visa may be issued a notice to appear in immigration court and put into deportation proceedings. Since then, I have spoken to dozens of lawyers, advocates, and survivors for whom the idea of applying for a T visa is fraught and uncertain, where it was once a comfort.

Over the past year, the processing times for T visas have increased to nearly three years. Approval rates have decreased significantly. Lawyers I spoke to reported receiving consistent requests for more evidence from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is often impossible for a survivor to provide, and denials based on crimes that applicants were forced to engage in by their traffickers. They also began being denied waivers for fees associated with the application.

“On their face, these might not seem like they are strictly trafficking policies,” said Anita Teekah, the senior director of the anti-trafficking program at Safe Horizon. “They are anti-immigrant policies. My clients are seen as immigrants first and survivors and victims second.”

The TIP Report’s description of the Trump administration is impressively comprehensive and, in places, damning. In assessing the administration’s response to trafficking, the report makes pointed reference to its anti-immigration policies, its decrease in investigations, and the discriminatory treatment of LGBTQ individuals. It is clearly written by an office deeply informed about the reality of trafficking in the United States and deeply concerned about helping victims.

But by maintaining a Tier 1 ranking for the United States, particularly while downgrading other countries for similar criticisms, the report could forfeit most of its potential impact on U.S. politics and risks losing its credibility in the eyes of the world. It also invites the Trump administration to continue its cruel anti-immigration policies to the detriment of trafficking victims. “The U.S. has built up this importance and good will and strength of this report and led by example,” said Bruggeman of Freedom Network USA. “When we fail to do these things, it not only impacts people here—it makes things more dangerous for people all over the world.”

Jenna Krajeski is a reporter with the Fuller Project, which focuses on issues that most impact women in the U.S. and abroad, and the co-author with Nadia Murad of "The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity and My Fight Against the Islamic State."

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