The Travesty of Human Trafficking: A Decade of Failed U.S. Policy

By Potocky, Miriam | Social Work, October 2010 | Go to article overview

The Travesty of Human Trafficking: A Decade of Failed U.S. Policy


Potocky, Miriam, Social Work


Human trafficking has been described as modern-day slavery. Its victims are exploited for labor, including commercial sex. To control their victims, traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion, including techniques such as confinement, beatings, rape, confiscation of documents, debt bondage, false offers of employment, and threats of harm to the victim or the victim's family. Positions in which victims are enslaved include field labor; prostitution, exotic dancing, and pornography; domestic servitude; servile marriage; factory labor and hotel and restaurant labor. In 2000, the United States enacted the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (P.L. 106-386) (TVPA) to prevent trafficking, protect victims, and prosecute traffickers.

The original TVPA focused on international trafficking, including reducing trafficking globally, providing assistance to immigrant victims of trafficking in the United States, and prosecuting traffickers. This policy was a major landmark in human rights legislation; however, its implementation and modification over time have been a travesty. This brief commentary demonstrates this by providing examples of political and ideological biases in the policy; lack of transparency and accountability; and failures of prevention, protection, and prosecution in relation to immigrant victims in the United States.

POLITICAL AND IDEOLOGICAL BIASES OF HUMAN TRAFFICKING POLICY

Numerous political and ideological biases underlie the development and subsequent amendments of the TVPA. For example, the policy makes a distinction between two types of human trafficking: labor trafficking and sex trafficking. Yet the legislation as originally conceived did not make such a distinction. The bifurcation resulted as a compromise to pressures from U.S. business groups, on one hand, who lobbied against the inclusion of labor as a form of trafficking, and antiprostitution groups (conservative Christian and some feminist groups), on the other hand, who lobbied for an emphasis on commercial sex (DeStefano, 2007; Skinner, 2008). Thus, this dichotomized definition of human trafficking panders to interest groups rather than serving any useful purpose.

Subsequent policy amendments (Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003 [EL. 108-193]; Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2005 [P.L. 109-164];William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 [EL. 110-457]) have increasingly focused on domestic victims and prostitution. Consequently, in terms of its social policy provisions, what was originally an immigrant policy is no longer focused on immigrants; and in terms of its criminal code provisions, what was originally an antislavery policy is now primarily an antiprostitution policy. Such metamorphoses dilute focus and resources and create duplications with existing state and federal laws.

Furthermore, an Orwellian use of language pervades the policy discourse. To give a few examples, the policy defines human trafficking as "a form of modern-day slavery," yet no other forms are identified; it defines" severe forms of trafficking" but does not specifically define nonsevere forms; "trafficking" is not synonymous with "movement," as it is in common usage; and the term "abolition" has been co-opted such that it now refers to the eradication of prostitution, not the eradication of slavery. Such linguistic obfuscations confuse the public and service providers and, together with the other biases, impede an evidence-based policy foundation.

In regard to the evidence base, a recent government-funded literature review identified 647 journal articles and reports on human trafficking and found that only 6 percent of these were empirical and peer-reviewed (Gozdziak & Bump, 2008). However, confounding the very purpose of a literature review, this report did not examine the findings of the studies. Furthermore,. Although the review did not classify the theoretical frameworks (or lack thereof) of the studies, Gozdziak and Bump (2008) stated that "much of the research on human trafficking . …

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