With slavery being abolished in 1865, one would think that there are no slaves in the United States in the 21st Century. However, this is a misconception held by many. Human trafficking is a modern form of slavery and happens in the United States, right in front of us and hidden in plain sight. Even though the U.S. and many other nations have enacted laws and legislatures that criminalize human trafficking, it is still an ongoing problem worldwide. To combat this modern-day slavery, it is time for the government on both the federal and state level to step up and take action to go after the perpetrators and support victims instead of prosecuting them.
The 13th Amendment was passed by Congress on December 18, 1865 declaring that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States” (Ginsberg et al. 674).
The United Nations define human trafficking as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons” (UN). It is done through the use of “force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim” and for the objective of exploitation such as prostitution, sex work, forced labor, or the illegal organ trade. Human trafficking is a serious issue and needs to be addressed. The first step on the long road to eliminate human trafficking is educating the public and expanding the reach out.
Kristen Leanderson Abrams is the senior director of Combatting Human Trafficking at the McCain Institute and the director of their Initiative to Combat Modern Slavery. On February 19, 2020, Abrams came to the Boston Public Library to talk about modern slavery and human trafficking at an event organized by WorldBoston. One of the issues with modern slavery and human trafficking is that many people know little about it and think of it more as a foreign problem. Because of that, educating the public and raising awareness is crucial to the fight against human trafficking.
Kristen Abrams first started clarifying common misconceptions that many people have when it comes to human trafficking. One of the most common misconceptions is that human trafficking only happens to undocumented immigrants. This is absolutely wrong as about 77% of human trafficking victims are legal residents or citizens of the United States. Because there is little media coverage on cases of human trafficking incidents, most people don’t think that trafficking is happening in the U.S. The most vulnerable group is homeless youth who are at high risk to be victimized. A lot of it is happening in the formal economy, specifically in restaurants, in the health and beauty industry, and in construction across the United States. Another group at high risk for becoming victims to human trafficking are low wage immigrant workers. People often become victimized through false job advertisements and people they know and have close relationships with. So why don’t victims reach out for help? The answer is rather simple: fear. Traffickers constantly remind them that they will get arrested or deported by law enforcement and ICE.
What can be done to combat modern slavery and human trafficking?
According to Kristen Leanderson Abrams, outreach is essential to the fight against human trafficking. By that she means reaching out and talking to workers and informing them about their rights. This also includes the access to grants to enable journalists and reporters to go out and investigate cases of modern slavery and human trafficking across the United States. The McCain Institute helps fund such grants to support reporters and expand the outreach.
Nonetheless, combatting human trafficking is not only up to the private sector, but needs to be addressed in the political arena as well. One of the contributing issues are current laws that keep human trafficking victims from reaching out for help to law enforcement and other agencies. Prostitution and sex work laws and statutes prevent many victims from seeking help because they know that they will likely get arrested and prosecuted if they talk to law enforcement. This also enables the traffickers to use this as threats and intimidation to control their victims. To solve this problem, the legalization and decriminalization could really help victims and encourage to reach out for help. Abrams also discussed that the perpetrators rarely get prosecuted or convicted for their crimes.
On a positive note, congress has passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act in 2000 which enables victims of human trafficking to stay in the United States on a T-Visa and avoid getting deported. However, this is not always enough to support victims and protect them from traffickers. More legislation is needed on the long road to combat modern slavery and human trafficking.
What can you do to help battle this modern form of slavery?
Get involved! Look for organizations like the McCain Institute and join initiatives in your area to see what you can do to help. Raising awareness and informing people, especially law enforcement officers about red flags and warning signs may save someone’s life and get them out of this vicious cycle. It is important that states and the federal government work on passing laws, specifically regarding sex work statutes and immigration laws that enable human trafficking to be protected instead of putting them in jeopardy through arrests and prosecutions.
Ginsberg, Benjamin, Theodore J. Lowi, Margaret Weir, Caroline J. Tolbert, Andrea Louise Campbell, and Robert J. Spitzer. We the People: An Introduction to American Politics. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.