Human Trafficking: The Other Good Reason to Reform Immigration

By Andrews, Lewis M. | Freeman, November 2012 | Go to article overview

Human Trafficking: The Other Good Reason to Reform Immigration


Andrews, Lewis M., Freeman


Restrictive immigration policies have long been associated with a variety of economic problems. These include the diminished availability of foreign talent, the inability of businesses to fill low-skilled agricultural and service jobs typically scorned by legal residents, and reduced access to the kind of entrepreneurial enthusiasm characteristic of those willing to risk their futures in another country.

Recently social scientists have discovered that restrictive immigration laws generate perverse consequences beyond those associated with labor migration. Consider human trafficking, the practice of using force and fraud to supply black markets in slave labor and sexual services. It turns out that tight immigration restrictions help sustain this age-old scourge.

To understand these consequences, it is important to appreciate just how lucrative a branch of organized crime the modern slave trade has become. Efficient transportation, technological advances in both farming and factory work, and advances in communication have all combined to make the use of forced labor inexpensive by historical measures.

Free the Slaves, a Washington, D.C. -based nonprofit, has calculated the return on the cost of an enslaved field worker in 1850s Alabama at just 5 percent, whereas today a trafficked farmhand can yield the owner anywhere from double digits to 800 percent. Similarly, an imprisoned prostitute shuttled around the boroughs of New York City in a van by a driver scheduling appointments on his cell phone can service as many as 40 customers in a single shift. As one researcher coldly put it, "People are a good commodity as they do not easily perish, but they can be transported over long distances and can be re-used and re-sold."

The result, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, is that 2.5 million victims, approximately 80 percent female and 50 percent under the age of 18, are being trafficked around the world at any given time. In 2005 the International Labor Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, estimated the annual revenues from this "industry" at $32 billion, or $13,000 per victim.

It would surprise many Americans to learn the extent to which this modern slave trade operates within their own country. A 2004 study, Hidden Slaves: Forced Labor in the United States, by Free the Slaves and the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, estimates that "tens of thousands" of women and children are trafficked nationwide, with the largest numbers coming from China, Mexico, and Vietnam.

According to the study, 46 percent are prostitutes, 27 percent are imprisoned household servants, 10 percent work in agriculture, 5 percent are held in sweatshops, and 4 percent serve against their will in restaurants and hotels. A May 2012 report by the BBC identified a single town in Mexico, Tenancingo, where 10 percent of the 10,000 residents are engaged full time in trafficking teenage girls to work the streets of New York, Chicago, and other major U.S. cities.

The unexpectedly large size and scope of Americas slave economy is hidden from policymakers and the public in part by its criminal nature, but also by a longstanding federal metric that substantially undercounts victims. The government has traditionally not tallied imprisoned workers identified in crackdowns of border-smuggling operations or in raids of sweatshops and brothels, only the relatively small number who somehow escape their captors and formally apply for assistance.

Debt Bondage

It is also important to understand the basic mechanism of human enslavement, which is typically referred to as "debt bondage." The victim, almost always from a poor, developing, or economically unstable country, agrees to repay the trafficker from future earnings for the cost of transport, border-control evasion, and accrued interest in order to land what is believed to be a legitimate job in a more prosperous part of the globe.

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