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.

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"If our government's perceived [to have] these increased enforcement schemes, the traffickers will essentially have a point," says Ivy Suriyopas, policy co-chair at Freedom Network and head of the anti-trafficking initiative at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "Immigrant victims are not going to come forward if they fear that the NYPD or the LAPD are not going to come help them but might label them a criminal first and ask questions later. Or maybe never ask questions at all."

Tiffany Williams, advocacy director for the Institute for Policy Studies' Break the Chain Campaign, a D.C.-based migrant workers' rights organization that's also part of Freedom Network, says she and other social workers are seeing "more fear and reluctance" about coming forward, particularly in states with aggressive immigration enforcement laws, like Arizona and Georgia, and since the expansion of the Secure Communities initiative, a federal fingerprinting program to identify undocumented immigrants. "What we've seen on the ground is that the more aggressive they are with these [enforcement] programs, where they're allowing local police to arrest people for being undocumented, the more that the Secure Communities programs and others are growing, the less likely it is that an immigrant survivor would be willing to come forward and ask for help," Williams says, referring to victims of trafficking and other crimes. "It impedes our work significantly," she adds.

More immigrants have been deported since 2009 than during eight years of the Bush administration. In 2012, the Obama administration spent 24 percent more on immigration enforcement agencies than on all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The Secure Communities program, which began in 2008 by offering states and localities voluntary participation, has become mandatory. At the end of last year, ICE had 39 agreements with local law enforcement agencies in 19 states, delegating federal immigration enforcement authority to them.

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A chilling effect. The consequences are detrimental to both immigrant communities and law enforcement, victim advocates say. "I know it's true from talking to people from immigrant communities and from talking to law enforcement [officers] who aren't really supportive of acting in this way. Because if we're talking about the NYPD or the Dallas Police Department or whoever that has to go into immigrant communities to investigate crime, they can say, 'I'm not immigration, I'm not here to deport you ... I'm here to hear about what's happened to you, to make it better; there's justice for you.' And if they had to act as an arm of immigration, they couldn't say that anymore, and they would lose the trust of those immigrant communities," says Lanning.

Alongside the growing mandate to enforce immigration regulations, law enforcement agencies are increasingly trained to deal with trafficking cases. "We have to ensure that if someone is here illegally that we uphold the law and do whatever it takes to ensure that we are fair to that person," says Salazar, the DHS official. "Depending on why we've intercepted them, different courses of action can happen. But when it comes to human trafficking investigations, and any of the investigations we do when there's a human being at the center of our investigation, they are of the utmost priority, regardless of their immigration status." Salazar doesn't think the agency's dual mandates are at odds, but admits there is a challenge. Getting victims to come forward, she says, "is a challenge for law enforcement in general. Probably a little more [for us] because we are an immigration law enforcement agency. But a lot of these victims come from these countries where corrupt law enforcement is common," she says, referring to many immigrants' inherent lack of trust of law enforcement.

Traffickers range from opportunistic individuals to criminal organizations to employment recruiting companies, experts say. Victims don't fit a single profile, varying in gender, age, education level, origin and other factors. The control exercised over a victim by a trafficker is sometimes physical and always psychological. "Many times the trafficker is keeping them in a state of limbo and hope, that this will somehow get better if they just comply with a set of demands or requirements or obligations," says Gary Haugen, a former Justice Department official and founder of International Justice Mission, a U.S.-based nonprofit that rescues victims of trafficking and violence overseas. "And so the victim is frequently trying to calculate, 'Okay, am I going to get out of this situation by maybe just doing the next thing that's asked of me—pay a little more money, do this thing I tell you, don't make me mad—or do I really try to go against my trafficker and seek outside help?"