Regulating Sex: The Politics of Intimacy and Identity

By Elizabeth Bernstein; Laurie Schaffner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4

Soft Glove, Punishing Fist:

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000

WENDY CHAPKIS 1

During the final months of the Clinton administration, the U.S. House, Senate, and Executive Branch joined together to pass legislation providing legal resi-dency and welfare benefits to undocumented workers and foreign prostitutes. Only those who were defined as victims of “severe forms of trafficking” qualified, however. Nevertheless, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (HR 3244) at first glance appears to be an inexplicable if welcome break from a continuing series of anti-immigration, antipoor, and antiprosti-tution policies in the United States. But a closer study of the law reveals that rather than being a significant departure from past practice on migration, poverty, and commercial sex, the new law actually serves as a soft glove covering a still punishing fist.

Historically, poor women, especially those suspected of participation in prostitution, have been the object of state scrutiny and disciplinary control. The first federal immigration law in the United States, the Page Law of 1875, specifically closed the border to those entering the country for “lewd and immoral purposes” from Asia. A few years later, additional legislation denied entry to “those likely to become public charges” (Luibheid 2002, 2). Such hostility to poor women-especially those not white, not native born, and not sexually restrained by marriage-has been a recurring theme in the United States. In 1996, the federal government approved a new round of sweeping welfare and immigration “reforms” (the Personal Responsibility and Work

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