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Trump Has Turned the War on Trafficking Into a War on Immigrants

The president is drawing on two decades of bipartisan support for crackdowns on traffickers to secure support for his agenda at the border.

Illustration by Ariel Davis

In November, about 6,000 impoverished Central American men, women, and children finished a 3,000-mile walk through Guatemala and Mexico to Tijuana, on the border with California. They had spent weeks on the road, fleeing grinding poverty and homicidal violence in their countries, and they had trekked in big groups to maintain safety in numbers.  It wasn’t the first mass walk northward from Central America. “Caravan” travelers in the past have sought asylum in America. And many were doing so again.

Meanwhile in the U.S., the midterm elections loomed. Republicans faced stiff competition for many congressional seats and worried about losing their majorities in the House and Senate. Looking for a strong wedge issue for his base, President Trump began harping on the caravan’s purported dangers. He began his admonishments in October when the migrants were on the road. By the time they got to Tijuana the elections were over and Democrats had won a majority of the House. But the government’s warnings of caravan threat were as unstoppable as an avalanche. The Army blanketed the border from Texas to California with Humvees and concertina wire, and Border Patrol agents just south of San Diego lobbed tear gas across the international line.

This was  truly “a different time” in history, Trump said in October—a time calling for a southern border wall. Vice President Mike Pence added that deception was being used to “entice vulnerable families to make the long and dangerous trek” to the United States, and the deceivers were “human traffickers with no regard for human life.”

Traffickers. It’s not the first time that the administration has used the word. From the moment he descended his escalator at Trump Tower in Manhattan to announce his candidacy for president, Trump has been drumming up support for a crackdown on immigrants. He has not only accused Mexicans of being rapists, but has claimed that immigrants from Central America are “trafficking” children.

Usually when the president uses the term “human trafficking”—though often it seems he is speaking only about a form of sex trafficking, as he did in remarks in November—he does so to advance an anti-immigrant agenda by painting a picture of vicious criminals. And millions of Americans believe him.

Trafficking rhetoric transforms migrants—often fleeing for their lives—into people Americans should not worry about or protect. Asylum seekers, Trump claimed without basis in the same November address, are actually coached by “professional” smugglers and traffickers. It’s easier to justify crackdowns on dangerous traffickers than on the hungry, struggling people these migrants really are, or on smugglers who help immigrants get where they want to go. If we are to understand how trafficking language has become central to anti-immigrant politics in 2018, the term’s strange, bipartisan history must be understood.

In the U.S., anti-trafficking rhetoric has a two-decade history. In the late days of the Clinton presidency, a close-knit circle of conservatives in Washington think tanks and in Congress sought new ways to fire up their base. They stumbled on an opportunity: more and more people were migrating out of economic necessity or simply to seek a better life, and they were crossing international borders, sometimes unlawfully.

To make their crossings, many migrants relied on others for help, and the helpers sometimes took advantage. Those who exploited the crossers for their own economic gain through force, fraud, or coercion became known as “human traffickers.”

At the same time, women’s rights groups demanded action to protect people from trafficking, in particular women and girls forced into the sex trade. The idea that men could be turning women and girls into sex slaves captured the right-wing imagination. In the late 1990s, conservatives like Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute worked with Gloria Steinem and the feminist group the National Organization for Women, to push a bipartisan group of federal legislators to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which criminalized human trafficking. President Clinton signed the TVPA into law in October 2000, and Congress then drafted local and federal law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators, who faced penalties up to 20 years, in trafficking cases involving “aggravated sexual abuse” or attempts to kidnap or kill the victim.

Millions of dollars poured into policing agencies, bolstered by public awareness campaigns warning (falsely, it later became obvious) that hundreds of thousands of children in the U.S. annually were prey to traffickers. The police have failed to find, much less help, anywhere near the number of victims that the government has claimed exist. Nevertheless, the fight against human trafficking continues to excite Republican and Democratic lawmakers. Some prosecutors now campaign as tough­ on ­trafficking. Sheriffs have also used the issue to advance their political careers.  

What began under Bill Clinton, expanded under George W. Bush, and prevailed under Barack Obama is now exploited by Trump. He has linked the fight against trafficking with his two main talking points: the claim that immigrants typically are criminals, and the proposition that they endanger women and children.

There’s just one problem: Most people facilitating border crossings aren’t traffickers. Instead, they are usually smugglers—nicknamed “coyotes.” The difference between the two terms—traffickers versus smugglers—is important, because they are not necessarily connected and they are defined distinctly in U.S. law. A trafficker uses force, fraud, and coercion to compel labor for financial gain, while a smuggler moves willing people across borders, or helps them elude immigration authorities, for financial gain.

Sometimes government agencies and law enforcement draw a firm distinction between people who are trafficked and people who are smuggled. The State Department distinguishes based on consent, regarding people who are trafficked as victims. People who are trafficked are also entitled to the same benefits from the U.S. government as are refugees, including a special visa—which some agencies cite as a reason for distinguishing the two groups clearly.

Still, these government agencies sometimes treat trafficking and smuggling interchangeably when it comes to enforcement. On a page of the Department of Homeland Security’s website titled “The Perils of Illegal Border Crossing,” scores of links to stories appear under the heading “Human Smugglers/Traffickers.” One describes a man from El Salvador and his “attempt to cross the U.S.­-Mexico border with assistance from professional human traffickers,” as homeland security puts it, who “forced 70 illegal immigrants into a ‘stash home’ in Texas where they deprived the immigrants of food and water for 36 hours.” The New York Times story the site links to describes crowding and hunger in the U.S. stash house where the man stayed. But it also notes that the smuggled man felt that the ordeal was “worth it,” and he was preparing to pay for relatives to undergo the same crossing.

Anthropologist Gabriella Sanchez, with the Migration Policy Centre in Italy, has interviewed and looked into the criminal court records of many people caught smuggling migrants on the U.S. side of the southern border. She also has spoken with the smugglers’ undocumented clients.

Sanchez believes that most migrant smugglers on the U.S. side of the border are ordinary people, products of the increasing militarization of borders during the past generation. In an era of increasingly severe restrictions on the international mobility of the poor, smugglers tend to be economically marginalized people who labor as drivers, lookouts, guides, coordinators, recruiters, fee collectors, walkers through the brush and desert, and rafters over the river. They also work for the immigrants at stash houses as the cooks, house cleaners, and trash haulers that people need when spending days in what amount to impromptu and often very crowded motels.

Illustration by Ariel Davis

While she has seen evidence of extreme violence by smugglers against their clients, Sanchez thinks that bad conditions are much more common—such as crowding in “stash houses” and lack of sufficient food. None of the immigrants she has spoken with have reported being victims of, or witnessing, trafficking.

Sanchez’s findings are buttressed by U.S. Sentencing Commission data about the people convicted of “alien smuggling” as a federal charge. For years, the commission has published annual data about such individuals. The most recent data, from fiscal year 2017, is consistent with past data: It shows that about two thirds of the people prosecuted on federal smuggling charges are U.S. citizens, a quarter are women, over half have little or no prior criminal history, and in over half the cases, they smuggled fewer than six people. Further, in 97 percent of the cases no weapons were used, and only one percent of cases involved people being involuntarily detained by smugglers.  

The conflation of immigrants with traffickers has consequences. For example, children have been “rescued” by U.S. law enforcement from their own parents. In 2017, a 16­-year-­old mother and her boyfriend, also a teenager, were driving the main street of Rio Grande City, a small town in South Texas that abuts the Mexico border. The girl was a student in a local public school; the boyfriend was a waiter at a local chain restaurant. Also in the car was their 11­-month-­old baby boy. The state trooper who stopped them wrote a ticket because the baby was not in a car seat. He then called Border Patrol—who determined that the girl was undocumented. The Border Patrol agent apprehended her, separated her from her baby, and would not allow the father to keep his child. It was weeks before the girl’s mother was able to go to court and recover the baby. The rationale for the separation, according to DPS records, was: “Border Patrol investigating possible sex trafficking of a minor.”

In another incident in Texas, a DPS trooper stopped a car about 45 miles north from the Texas border with Mexico. The trooper told the driver, a Latinx U.S. citizen, that one of her taillights was malfunctioning. He and another trooper who arrived on the scene then questioned her passenger—a 22-­year-­old woman who spoke only Spanish. She said she was a U.S. citizen. The driver said that she and her passenger were en route to the Six Flags amusement park in San Antonio.

It took the two troopers almost an hour of interrogation and rebukes, with assistance from two Border Patrol agents, to break the passenger. She finally admitted that she was undocumented, recently arrived from El Salvador. “I was threatened with death in my country,” she said, weeping.

The Border Patrol agent arrested the driver for “alien smuggling.” He did this after one of the DPS troopers lectured her about putting the Salvadoran woman in danger. “Is she gonna be trafficked?” he scolded the driver. “Are they going to make her do things that she doesn’t want to do? … [Y]ou’re not thinking about what could happen to her.”

The rhetorical mash-up of smuggling and trafficking has even shaped the law. A case in point is Arizona’s “Coyote Law,”or Senate Bill 1372, dating to 2005.

It began as an attempt to prosecute a perceived human trafficking problem in Arizona, and grew out of legislative collaboration between right­-wing religious fundamentalists and women’s rights advocates. One of the advocates was Peggy Bilsten, a former Phoenix City Council member and founder of StreetLightUSA, an organization that focuses on trafficking of children. According to a 2005 Arizona State Senate reading document, Arizona’s chapter of the National Organization for Women also supported passage of SB 1372. When enacted, it was one of the country’s first non-federal anti­-trafficking laws. But in its final version it was amended with language that made it a felony “for a person to intentionally engage in the smuggling of human beings for profit or commercial purpose.” The intention was to punish smugglers. The bill was then taken up by Andrew Thomas, who was then the county attorney for Maricopa County, which encompasses Phoenix. Known for his vocal hostility to the presence of undocumented immigrants in Arizona, Thomas argued that immigrants who paid to be smuggled were conspiring to plot their own border crossings. That is, they were smugglers of themselves.

The “Coyote Law” led to prosecutions and convictions of hundreds of undocumented immigrants who had nothing to do with trafficking. And it launched the career of Joe Arpaio, the notoriously racist former sheriff of Maricopa County. With SB 1372 as a tool, Arpaio began arresting immigrants who had “conspired” to smuggle themselves.

A federal court overturned SB 1372 in late 2014. By then, about 1,000 people had been convicted and hundreds more charged, according to Sanchez, the anthropologist. Though the law was overturned, the convictions were not vacated.

It seems that law enforcement agencies have accepted the idea that human smugglers are invariably connected to human traffickers. By that logic, smuggled people are the smugglers’ victims—especially when they are children. That means that the children’s mothers and fathers, who paid the smugglers, are complicit with traffickers.

A day before President Trump signed an executive order ending “zero ­tolerance” separation of families and children at the southern border, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions implied that the separations were necessary because, as he told Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Christian Family Research Council, on Perkins’s radio show “Washington Watch,” “[M]any adults taking children along are not related to them. Could be smugglers, could be human traffickers. It’s a very unhealthy and dangerous thing.”

The next day, at a meeting announcing the executive order, Trump claimed migrant parents were giving their children to adults to use them “as a ticket to getting into the country, with some really horrible people.” He employed what has become his litany: “You have the coyotes, you have the traffickers, the human traffickers. Not only drug traffickers, but the human traffickers. They use these children as passports to get into the country.”

Illustration by Ariel Davis

And the next day, Trump used a Cabinet meeting to warn of a nonexistent “massive child-smuggling industry” involving migrants, through which he alleged “human traffickers are making a fortune.” He defended his anti-­immigration policies by asserting that immigrant children entering the U.S. “really came up with coyotes.” “You know what a coyote is,” Trump continued. Later, he returned to his litany: “they’re drug traffickers, they’re human traffickers, they’re coyotes.”  

The administration also portrays itself as the humanitarian responder to this purported horror. In June, when Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was called to answer for the administration’s separation of families at the border, she said the government was carrying out its “responsibility” to “protect alien children from human smuggling, trafficking and other criminal actions.” Republican members of Congress use the same rhetoric to push more immigrant crackdowns. “I assure you, there’s more crime than I ever possibly imagined crossing our borders. And a huge portion of it is sex trafficking,” Representative Bill Posey of Florida told a human trafficking symposium in August. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said on Twitter, “Children will be abducted & sold to drug cartels & slave­-traders as a free ticket into US” at the border. Referring to human trafficking, Representative John Carter of Texas said to reporters in April, “Believe me, a lot of the attractive children are not making it to the border.”

Conservative media echoes the “can’t ­tell­ immigrants ­from­ traffickers” myth. The morning of the Nielsen press briefing, journalist Sharyl Attkisson said to her 200,000 or so Twitter followers, “So sad how many young kids are trafficked to US—under the guise that they’re the ‘children’ of the traffickers, or are released to their ‘parents’ already in US, to be used as labor slaves or sex slaves.” Fox Nation’s Tomi Lahren elevated the drama later that day, tweeting, “Don’t buy into the Left’s emotional blackmail. These ‘family units’ are often human traffickers, drug smugglers and cartel separated from ‘their children.’”

Don’t buy into the Left’s emotional blackmail. These ‘family units’ are often human traffickers, drug smugglers and cartel separated from ‘their children.’

Tomi Lahren Fox Nation

Even members of the public who strongly support immigrants’ rights have been lulled by this rhetoric. Oakland, California, is a “sanctuary city,” and in August 2017, infuriated residents documented an immigration raid in which city police officers assisted ICE by blocking traffic. Responding to community outrage, the police chief said his agency was helping ICE and Homeland Security conduct a “sex trafficking” investigation. As ICE documents later showed, no one was charged in the raid with human trafficking; instead, ICE sought to deport one person for a civil immigration violation.

As for immigrant children torn from their own asylum-seeking mothers and fathers after President Trump assumed office, the government began citing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act as one justification for the separations.

The TVPA was reauthorized in 2008 and states that when a minor enters the U.S. unaccompanied by a parent, the government must carefully vet the adults who come forward to take sponsorship of the child.

In 2017, the government began arresting some migrant parents, mostly Central Americans entering the U.S. at the southern border with their children, and then prosecuting the parents for illegal entry, a federal misdemeanor. The prosecutions entailed first separating the accused criminals from their children. In federal criminal court virtually all the parents quickly pleaded guilty and were given time served or, at most, a few weeks of jail. But after they served their time, they were not released and reunited with their children. They were put into immigration detention indefinitely, while their children languished in government­-sponsored shelters and foster care.

The government justified these separations in part by citing the TVPA. A DOJ attorney explained the actions in May to a judge presiding over an ACLU lawsuit challenging them. Children couldn’t be reunited with their parents, the lawyer said, because when a parent is locked up in an immigration detention center, according to TVPA he or she is “not going to be a suitable custodian.”

That argument failed in the court of public opinion. In June, amid media coverage of distraught immigrant toddlers and their weeping mothers and fathers, the country exploded in outrage. In response, President Trump continued to cite the TVPA—but now as a problem, not a solution. “The Democrats forced that law upon our nation,” he said. “I hate it. I hate to see separation of parents and children.”

In the fall, the president began promoting the idea of rescuing endangered Central American boys and girls from exploitation, to defend his anti-­immigration policies. “In many cases you have really bad people coming in and using children,” Trump claimed to reporters in October. “They don’t even know the children,” he said of adult migrants with minors­­ virtually all of who, in fact, are family members or neighbors. “And they grab children and they use them to come into our country.”

Trump’s rhetoric has been so effective that he has fallen back on it when suggesting he will once again separate migrant families to keep the adults from subjecting children to “the horrific actions of child smuggling,” as a White House spokesperson put it. The Trump administration floated this idea even as Trump talked of denying citizenship to babies born in America to undocumented parents.

The president’s rhetoric continues as he seizes opportunities to cast migrant parents as the mercenaries of their own sons and daughters. At the end of November, after Border Patrol agents in California threw tear gas at caravan members including small children, Trump said that those children, too, had been deliberately put in harm’s way by “grabbers.” By characterizing the act of border crossing with children as “trafficking,” a political idiom almost immune to challenge, he continues his war on immigrants.