Modern Slavery Emerges From the Shadows

Enforcement of immigration laws could be making human trafficking tougher to detect.


An estimated 21 million people are subjected to forced labor worldwide. Ima Matul, center, was one of them.

By + More

[READ: Meet the Nonprofit Helping the White House Stop Human Trafficking]

The threat of arrest and deportation is a common tool traffickers use to control their victims, experts say. Often, they'll confiscate the victim's immigration documents, as Ima's employer did. In another case, last November, the Justice Department secured a life sentence in the conviction of Alex Campbell, a 45-year-old massage parlor owner in suburban Illinois. Besides using violence to coerce three women from Ukraine and one woman from Belarus into forced labor and commercial sex, he had confiscated their passports and visas. At the trial, prosecutors showed that Campbell targeted foreign women without legal status in the United States. Ima's traffickers were never prosecuted.

But even those immigrants who arrive on a legitimate work-related visa have become trafficking victims. These visas usually bind the worker to an employer, who can hold that requirement over their head and even become their trafficker. "If employment ends, then so does visa status," says Avaloy Lanning, senior director of the anti-trafficking program at Safe Horizon, a New York-based victim's services agency. "The trafficker uses that against them, [saying], if you run then you're going to be illegal, then immigration is going to pick you up, arrest you and deport you." Because of the vulnerability for exploitation and abuse this creates, victims' advocates are now pushing for comprehensive reform of the temporary worker program to be included in the anticipated immigration legislation.

Immigration connection. While there are no reliable numbers to gauge the full scope of human trafficking in the United States, Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations directorate in fiscal 2012 initiated 894 human trafficking investigations, made 967 arrests and 559 indictments, and secured 381 convictions. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had about 450 pending human trafficking investigations at the end of last year. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center, a hotline funded in part by the federal government and operated by the nonprofit Polaris Project, received 20,639 calls last year, referencing 2,333 potential victims—1,367 of them placed by potentially trafficked persons. Forty-one percent of calls received in past years referenced foreign nationals, 43 percent referenced U.S. citizens, and the rest were unknown. In 2004, the last time such an estimate was made, the federal government estimated that between 14,500 and 17,500 people were trafficked into the United States. According to the State Department, most foreign victims identified in 2011 came from Mexico, the Philippines, Thailand, Guatemala, Honduras and India.

In 2000, Congress passed landmark legislation called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which, among other things, authorized the government to provide temporary immigration relief for foreign victims. In recent years, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies have launched global, national and local outreach campaigns to inform vulnerable communities about their rights. More federal, state and local law enforcement officials are being trained in recognizing signs of trafficking and taking on a victim-centered approach. "No matter where a person's from or what their immigration status is, they should come forward to law enforcement," says Angie Salazar, who is in charge of ICE's Smuggling and Trafficking division. "We will always investigate a case; and, if they are identified as a victim of human trafficking, they have rights under the law regardless."

[DEBATE: Should Work Visas Be Easier to Get?]

Still, law enforcement officials say most trafficking victims are identified through nonprofit and local service providers. Increased enforcement, including the deportation of more than almost 1.6 million people since 2009, has made it less likely that victims will come forward, service providers say.

"There is a heightened resistance among exploited immigrants to seek protection from law enforcement, to access social services and health care, or to seek assistance related to exploitation or violations of legal rights," states a policy paper published by Freedom Network USA, a national alliance of 30 anti-trafficking organizations. "Any effort to reach out for help brings a risk of disclosure of their lack of status and related immigration enforcement measures. The resulting detention, even if minimal, reinforces the exploitative employer's threats of law enforcement and the immigration system."