Preventing Human Trafficking Through Systems Reformation

/ Blog Post

Photos of Michaela Lovejoy and Ashleigh Pelto

By Michaela Lovejoy, a 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Crowell & Moring Foundation, and Ashleigh Pelto, a 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow cosponsored by Jones Day Foundation and Procter & Gamble Co.

Broadly defined, trafficking is the exploitation of a human being through force, coercion, or fraud for the purpose of labor or commercial sex. In 2000, the United States Congress created a federal definition of trafficking with the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Since that time, resources have been channeled to prosecuting traffickers and prevention campaigns educating the public to spot individual signs of trafficking.

While well intentioned, these campaigns miss a key point: the systemic economic and social inequalities that create the conditions under which trafficking can thrive. True prevention of human trafficking starts with correcting these inequities, which are fostered by harmful laws and policies that criminalize, restrict, or otherwise oppress survivors. As attorneys, we have the tools to advocate for tangible changes to laws and policies that foster exploitation. The following targeted recommendations in areas of housing, criminal record relief, immigration, and labor rights are tangible steps lawyers can take to meaningfully prevent human trafficking.

Through Immigration System Reform

Immigration policies that constrain freedom of choice and deprive migrants of the opportunity to earn legal status create a culture of fear that increases the risk of labor and sexual exploitation. Members of the legal community can advocate against increased detention and surveillance at the border and in immigrant communities. With increased rights, migrants are empowered against coercion by traffickers who take advantage of their lack of legal protections and vulnerability to deportation.

A second step is to push for more pathways to legal immigration by increasing the number of visas available to migrants. Only 10,000 U-Visas, which are available to survivors of certain crimes, and 5,000 T-Visas, which are specific to survivors of trafficking, are available to applicants each year. Not only can legal advocates lobby the government to expand these quotas for migrants who have already experienced crime, but they can prevent exploitation by pushing for legislation that would allow for adjustment of status for undocumented migrants who are already in the United States.

Finally, trafficking will look different depending on your community. In a migrant farmworker community, there may be a need to conduct know your rights presentations, while in an urban area, resources may best be channeled towards T-visa screenings at a community space for immigrant women. Legal advocates should form relationships with local immigrant rights organizations who are working directly with the community to gain this institutional knowledge. By taking a grassroots approach to advocacy, you can connect with activists who know firsthand where exploitation is taking place, and work together as partners to identify where resources need to be focused.

Through Increased Housing Rights

A lack of safe shelter is often a primary factor that pushes a survivor into commercial exploitation. In a 2018 Polaris survey, 64% of respondents “reported being homeless or experiencing unstable housing when they were recruited into their situation.” It is critical that survivors have access to emergency short term shelter, transitional housing, and stable permanent housing upon exiting a trafficking situation. Yet calls for emergency housing placements remain one of the largest crisis requests to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Homelessness is a crippling problem in the United States, but advocates for survivors of trafficking know that their clients face unique barriers to housing. For example, many emergency and transitional shelters for survivors impose faith-based requirements or are limited by age, gender, or familial status. Transitional programs are few and far between, and both private landlords and public housing programs have the discretion to discriminate against prospective tenants applying for permanent housing based on criminal history and financial status.

Facing these challenges, the legal community can advance systemic change first by lobbying local, state, and the federal government to pass budgets that increase funding for housing services, both emergency and long-term, for survivors of trafficking. Another area for reform is to advocate for an amendment to VAWA so that public housing leases contain protections specifically for survivors of trafficking, and not just for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking. It is equally important to fight for state and local governments, residential management companies, and landlords to include the same protections on private leases. By focusing on housing reform in these targeted areas, advocates promote safety, stability, and dignity in a system that has few existing protections against exploitation.

Through Criminal Legal System Reform

In 2016, the National Survivor Network surveyed 130 trafficking survivors and found that over 90% of these survivors had been arrested at least once during the course of being trafficked. Over half of all respondents believed 100% of their arrests, charges, and convictions were directly related to their trafficking experience. The charges can vary widely in nature depending on how a trafficker is exploiting their victim, the law enforcement priorities in a given district, and the specific vulnerabilities of a given victim. Survivor Reentry Project.

If a person is not identified as a victim at the time of arrest or prosecution, their experience frequently ends with a criminal record on top of the myriad traumas they have endured. The resulting record of such arrests and convictions impacts survivors’ lives for years after they escape their traffickers and abusers. A survivor with a criminal record may face rejection from a job or housing application when a potential employer or landlord discovers the conviction in a background check, thus barring the survivor from finding gainful employment or affordable housing.[1]

With limited access to supports to help victims cope with and heal from the trauma of violence, victims may engage in behaviors to survive that can result in criminalization—from substance use or trade, crimes of theft, prostitution, to acts of self-defense. For young survivors, these behaviors may take the form of running away, substance use, and truancy. When these behaviors are criminalized instead of understood as a need for holistic, community-based, survivor-centered support, these young survivors are disproportionately funneled into the trauma-to-prison pipeline. The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline.

Reform through expanded criminal record relief access, the decriminalizing of acts which trafficking survivors are often coerced into engaging in, and alternatives to incarceration are key ways to support survivors and combat trafficking in this area of law.

Through Labor Rights

Labor laws have the ability to remedy systemic inequities experienced by survivors of both sex and labor trafficking. Labor exploitation of many forms has existed in this country since its founding, beginning with slavery, going through the exploitation of child workers in the Industrial Revolution, up to the current exploitation of prison labor in the criminal legal system today. And while labor conditions have undeniably improved in the United States over the centuries, exploitation remains as do those willing to combat it.

Labor trafficking was first defined federally in 2000 through the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. As the trafficking movement progresses and begins looking to take on the systems that impact vulnerability to trafficking, the need for corporate accountability throughout supply chains and within workers’ rights has emerged. And it has become apparent that labor laws are being ignored or overlooked in many industries.

Corporate accountability is a key way to address labor trafficking in supply chains. Grass roots efforts such as the Worker-Driven Social Responsibility Network (WSR) have created reform in industries such as the Vermont dairy industry and the Florida tomato industry. WSR holds that: “Corporations bear responsibility for ensuring that human rights are respected in their suppliers’ operations” and works to bring that responsibility to bear by transforming labor conditions and corporate accountability within industries.

Red Canary Song is another organization aiding organizing efforts for migrant and self-identified sex trade workers, and they support workers through their Women’s Migrant Resource Network, mutual aid, and community partnerships.

As members of the legal community, we are able to come alongside the efforts to transform broken systems which fail to protect the most marginalized populations within our communities. Transformation of the immigration, housing, criminal legal, and labor law systems are key places to start when it comes to the prevention of human trafficking.

At Equal Justice Works, we are proud of the work that Michaela and Asleigh are doing to advocate for survivors of human trafficking. To learn more about their work, visit Michaela’s Fellow profile here and Ashleigh’s profile here.

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Criminal Record Relief:

Labor Rights:

[1] The NSN survey found that of the 91% of survivors with criminal convictions on their records, 72.7% faced barriers with employment and 57.6% with housing. Survivors with criminal records or convictions may also be disqualified from financial aid and private loans if they seek to continue their education. They may lose or be unable to regain custody of their children. They may not be able to access government benefits. Or they may face removal from the country or be barred from re-entry because they are a foreign national with a criminal conviction.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow