Human Trafficking in the Trump Era

Last week, Donald Trump issued three Executive Orders, increasing interior enforcement against undocumented immigrants, punishing sanctuary cities, limiting due process for arriving immigrants and ordering construction of a southern border wall, and stopping resettlement of all refugees and immigrants from seven Middle Eastern countries.

Fulfilling his campaign promises, Trump has swiftly implemented his anti-immigrant agenda in the harshest terms. We now have a clearer picture of what Trump’s America looks like, and the public outcry from immigrants, the descendants of immigrants and their allies, has been resounding.

Why does this concern the Anti-Trafficking Fund?

Because under Trump’s policies, human trafficking will inevitably increase. Those who have been working to prevent this crime and help its survivors know that shutting down safe migration options increases unsafe migration. We have already seen human trafficking tied to conflict, internal displacement and the refugee crisis in the Middle East. In Syria, traffickers use children as soldiers and human shields, force ethnic minority women and girls into marriage and hold migrants in forced prostitution. Traffickers in neighboring countries recruit from refugee camps, exploiting this vulnerable population. During these ongoing disasters, the arduous journey through the U.S. refugee application process is one of few routes out of these terrorized countries.  With the stroke of a pen, Trump has shattered the dreams of refugees, many of whom have spent months, even years, in the processing line.

The draconian enforcement mechanisms and abridgments to due process along the southern border could also drive up trafficking to the U.S. When I worked in the anti-trafficking field in New York, 80 percent of our clients were from Mexico and Latin America. Legal migration options from these countries were almost nonexistent for those fleeing discrimination, domestic violence and persecution, or simply trying to make a better life for their families. The absence of legal options to enter the U.S. left these individuals incredibly vulnerable to trafficking. Fences, border patrols, vigilantes and the dangers of a land border crossing did not stop migrants from seeking freedom, safety and opportunity.  But these barriers did drive up the prices smugglers could charge.  Rather than delivering them safely to the other side of the border, these smugglers sometimes become traffickers and extract even more from their victims through exploitative labor. Many of my clients learned after they arrived in the United States that they had incurred an enormous smuggling debt that they would have to “work off” through forced labor. Increasing obstacles to migration will not stop migration.  But the barriers will increase danger to migrants, eliminating their bargaining power.

sanctuary cities

Those at risk for human trafficking – as well as those who have already survived exploitation — will be put at even more risk if the careful architecture of sanctuary cities is demolished. Human traffickers in the U.S. already tell victims that no police officer will help them.  Traffickers routinely threaten that victims will only risk deportation if they go to the authorities, especially if they’ve been forced to commit crimes. In sanctuary cities, police can reassure immigrants that traffickers are not telling the truth.  Local officers can honestly say that they are there to investigate real crimes, not deport victims. But if local law enforcement are forced to carry out the duties of immigration agents and charged with detaining and deporting every last undocumented immigrant (and some documented ones), trafficking victims will have nowhere to turn.

what we can do

Well, that is not entirely true. Survivors of trafficking can turn to our grantees – human rights-based organizations that will continue fighting for the right to safe working conditions, healing services, and justice, no matter the political climate (grantees listed on the Anti-Trafficking Fund page). If human trafficking increases within the U.S. and internationally, this small cadre of organizations becomes an even more important lifeline. Under Obama, our grantees received Presidential Awards for their work against human trafficking, worked on a Strategic Plan on human trafficking for government agencies, and institutionalized survivor feedback on policy-making through the National Advisory Council. This momentum could reverse under Trump: instead of being consulted, many of these organizations could lose essential funding and their voice in policy decisions. These three orders are only the beginning –  a new proposed order might end public benefits that survivors of trafficking rely as they rebuild their lives. There is surely more to come. Supporting and funding organizations that have a human rights approach to trafficking is vital in these challenging times.

But funders and NGOs cannot face this crisis alone. Congress must recognize that Trump’s dangerous policies will hurt the most vulnerable most of all. Since its entrance into the political conversation in the early 2000’s, human trafficking has garnered broad, bi-partisan concern. Elected officials have come together across party lines to pass laws to punish traffickers and offer remedies and relief to survivors. Traffickers often target youth, immigrants, low-income workers and people oppressed because of their race, sexual orientation or gender – not every government official’s priority constituents. But there is something about human trafficking that arouses a very human and very American revulsion. Perhaps it is because we fought a war to abolish slavery, and pledge our loyalty to the value of “freedom” in every campaign speech and patriotic song. While we don’t all agree on the scope, or solutions to human trafficking, we all agree that we must end such oppressive practices here and around the world. We must renew that commitment now.

Sienna Baskin
Director, Anti-Trafficking Fund


2023 NEO Philanthropy Year in Review

Reflections on “Working with Intermediaries Strategically”

NEO Philanthropy Launches Economic Mobility and Opportunity Fund