Immigration Reform and Human Trafficking

Only recently has it become clear how restrictive immigration laws produce the harmful social consequence of human trafficking—the use of force and fraud to supply cheap labor and sexual services.

Free the Slaves, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, has calculated that 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 but accurately 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.”

By the time a trafficked person discovers the real work he or she has been imported to perform, it is too late.  Amid threats of violence, uncertainty as to the help local authorities are willing to provide, possible retribution against loved ones back home, inability to speak the local language well, and a lack of financial resources, the victim has no choice but to accept the captor’s unilateral modification of the contract.

Recently research by social scientists in the United States and Germany began to make clear the surprisingly large number of subcontractors a trafficker needs to employ: recruiters on the ground, corrupt officials, smugglers, forgers, pimps and labor camp enforcers at the back end, and even people to compose advertisements to lure naive victims with the false hope of legitimate jobs in distant lands. What economists then began to see is that a trafficker’s ability to control operating expenses is dependent almost exclusively on migration patterns.  Poor and underdeveloped regions where large numbers of people are anxiously seeking employment in more prosperous countries with closed borders give rise to large, efficient smuggling operations that reduce the trafficker’s transportation expenses.  (A smuggler is not necessarily a trafficker until he is employed by one or branches out into that business himself.)  Economies of scale similarly lower the costs of recruitment and documentation. For example the dissolution of the Soviet Union resulted in chaos in the satellite counties that led to waves of migration, which in turn made trafficking from Eastern Europe exceptionally profitable.

The clearly suggested conclusion is that the most effective way to reduce trafficking would be to undercut the barriers to employment migration in more affluent nations.  Noting that the vast majority of victims are trapped between a desperate desire to improve their lives and restrictive immigration policies, Kevin Bales, professor emeritus at Roehampton University in London and the author of Ending Slavery, argues that stemming the illegal flow of slaves means “facing up to the economic demand for people to fill jobs in richer countries.”

The case for a more lenient immigration policy has long been based on the sound economic argument that an open employment market increases productivity, which in turn raises a country’s overall standard of living.   To that we can now append the opportunity to undermine sex and labor trafficking and thereby begin to end an age-old source of human misery.

Learn more at Lewis M. Andrews’ The Freeman article: Human Trafficking: The Other Good Reason to Reform Immigration.


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