America’s Symbolic, not Effective, Anti-Trafficking Policy

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Written by Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco

On May 25, 2016 President Obama spoke at a town-hall meeting of entrepreneurs in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where he claimed that the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal will reduce human trafficking in the region. Like many politicians discussing American policy, this announcement was hollow, and served as nothing more than to garner public accolade. For years, the United States has touted symbolic anti-trafficking policy, which has little to no supporting evidence of efficacy.

If the United States Government can’t address the human trafficking scourge in our own country, how can we claim to know “what works” for the rest of the world, much less hold them accountable for our idea of appropriate anti-trafficking policy?

According to President Obama the TPP includes an entire set of policies designed to work with countries to prevent human trafficking. He specifically cited the utility of leverage, by requiring countries to improve their anti-trafficking policies, before joining the TPP. However, this ranking and reward strategy has already failed, as evidenced by the lacking efficacy of the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report and associated funding.

In fact, the United States Government’s anti-trafficking efforts, which lag behind our European counterparts, haven’t been particularly effective at all. Beginning with the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000, there has been a flood of legislation, funding, and public awareness campaigns to combat human trafficking in the United States. The TVPA focuses on the heralded four “P’s” of anti-trafficking intervention: protecting victims, prosecuting offenders, preventing future crimes, and forging partnerships. However, available data suggests that we have failed miserably in meeting all four of these objectives.

According to available research, there is a critical gap between law on the books and law in action, with regards to American anti-trafficking policy. Despite passing safe-harbor laws, adopting United Nations directives, and allowing T-visa protections; victims continue to be erroneously criminalized through arrestdetention, and deportation. Moreover, the clearance rate for human trafficking offenses is well below all other crimes, with few offenders ever being arrested or only charged for tangentially related offenses, which carry lighter sentences (e.g., money laundering or pandering).

More important than the lacking evidence base, are the personal stories of the victims who are treated like disposable people in our country. For example, take “Jessica” a human trafficking victim who I personally encountered in the D.C. Metropolitan area last year. After witnessing her human trafficker throw her out of a car, I put her in touch with victim service providers and law enforcement. I learned that her human trafficker was in the metropolitan area on pre-trial release for a malicious wounding incident against another victim. I discovered that during the course of her victimization, which spanned fifteen years, “Jessica” been shot at point blank range in the leg by one of her traffickers, requiring a vascular transfusion and skin graft. She detailed how she was arrested, after calling the police on one of her abusers. Later, her trafficker had his charges null prosecuted, and “Jessica” was left with little to no resources to repair her life.

Or take “Allison,” a 12-year-old girl who was trafficked from New York to Washington D.C. Despite her clear victim status, there was no social service worker to care for her and no family member to pick her up from the police station after she was rescued. So, the police ended up transferring her to Oak Hill, a juvenile detention center, where she was raped by two inmates with a toothpaste tube. “Allison”, like many victims, returned to the commercial sex industry post law enforcement intervention.

Is the United States really in a position to be guiding anti-trafficking policy on an international scale?

The aforementioned narratives are not unusual; human traffickers operate with impunity and victims are erroneously criminalized with regularity in our country. At this point anti-trafficking intervention in the United States frequently involves criminalizing victims by holding them in detention for their “own protection,” despite counter recommendations from experts in the field. Moreover, there are little to no resources for rescued victims, leading to a cyclical process of exploitation and arrest.

However, this lack of efficacy isn’t isolated to the United States. Given the clandestine nature of the crime, an evidence-based method for anti-trafficking intervention has yet to be identified internationally. As such, we are not at a point where the United States, nor any country, should be dictating appropriate anti-trafficking policy. Instead, our politicians should be more critical and introspective in better addressing the human trafficking scourge locally and discontinue the business as usual practice of touting hollow victories for public accolade.

 
About the Author: Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in criminology, law and society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium,” is contracted for publication with Praeger/ABC-Clio.