Immigration Reform and Human Trafficking

The State of Washington’s many ports and its international border make it a particular hotspot for trafficking. The Washington Task Force against Trafficking of Persons reports that there have been human trafficking cases in 18 of Washington’s 39 counties. Still, the state has also been an early adopter of anti-trafficking legislation, becoming in 2003, the first state in the nation to criminalize human trafficking as a felony.

Of course, not all trafficking victims are alike. “We often think of trafficking as the horrific situations of trafficking women for prostitution, but there is labor trafficking, in all manner of low-wage and not-low wage work, against workers who are here with every different kind of visa or no visa,” explained Rebecca Smith of the National Employment Law Project, at a Human Trafficking and Immigration Reform conference earlier this year.

Victims are often placed by their handlers in domestic labor jobs in fields like agriculture, landscaping, housekeeping and construction. But for many, “their jobs do not turn out as advertised,’’ Smith explained. Labor and sex trafficking victims fall under the command of their handlers, often because they are threatened, or because they fear the law and do not speak the language.

Temporary visas are usually contract based, allowing individuals to work for only one employer for a particular period of time. The problem is that if a worker experiences abuse or witnesses wrongdoing at the workplace, he or she has only two choices: report the problem and risk being sent home or put up with the injustice. Many victims, said King County Sheriff John Urquhart, don’t understand the difference between police and deportation officers. “We cannot have people that are afraid to call the police and report a crime because they think they are going to be deported. … we are not allowed to ask about someone’s immigration status, under any circumstances. We cannot ask for a green card, we cannot ask for someone’s papers. We are not allowed to do that,” he said.

Smith and Urquhart believe that pending national immigration legislation is the key to preventing human trafficking and the labor and sex trade. They hope that the new Immigration Reform bill, which provides a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., will allow foreign workers to feel secure enough to report crimes, such as labor, physical or emotional abuse, and that citizenship requirements like English proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history will help them learn about their human and constitutional rights.

The National Immigration Law Center reports that Title III of the pending legislation would also expand the eligibility for U visas (meant for crime victims) to include victims of labor law violations and would prohibit the denial of backpay to an employee based on their immigration status. “This would allow workers to stand up for their labor and civil rights free from fear of deportation,” their site explains.

Learn more at Simona Trakiyska’s Crosscut.com article: Labor trafficking? Immigration reform’s the thing.

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