Support Groundbreaking Reporting on Women
Logo Logo
Economy & Labor , US

Trump’s Anti-Trafficking Argument for a Border Wall

by Jenna Krajeski February 5, 2019

This article was originally published in The New Yorker.

In 1997, Ima Matul, a seventeen-year-old living in rural Indonesia, was offered a job as a live-in housekeeper in Los Angeles. The person who recruited her promised that, if she worked for a few years, she could leave with enough money to help her family build a new house and start a better life in Indonesia. Her salary would be only a hundred and fifty dollars a month, but job opportunities in Indonesia were scant, so she accepted, and her recruiter arranged a tourist visa. When she arrived in L.A., though, her employer confiscated her passport. Matul lived in a corner of the family room in her employer’s home, cooking and cleaning for up to eighteen hours a day, without pay; if her work didn’t meet certain standards, her employer beat her. Her tourist visa soon expired. Because she spoke very little English and didn’t know anything about the U.S. immigration system, she had no idea where she would go if she did manage to leave the house. Her employer told her that, if she went to the police, she would be arrested. But, after three years, Matul had learned enough English to write a letter asking for help, and she gave the letter to a neighbor’s nanny.

Matul imagined that, after escaping, she would work illegally until she could afford a plane ticket back to Indonesia. She couldn’t fathom a way to stay in the United States. The neighbor, though, took her to cast, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that helps survivors of trafficking. Workers there told her that she could apply for a T visa, which is designed for victims like her. It took Matul a moment to understand what they meant. “I didn’t even know I had been trafficked,” she told me. Matul got the visa, then a green card, and, eventually, U.S. citizenship. She now works for cast, as the coördinator of its Survivor Leadership Program, which gives survivors of trafficking a platform to help and advocate for others who are escaping similar situations. In 2015, she also helped form the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, a board composed of eleven survivors, which helps the President shape anti-trafficking legislation. In 2016, she spoke at the Democratic National Convention.

It is difficult to determine the prevalence of trafficking in the U.S. because there is no single reliable source for statistics; experts rely on hotlines, court cases, and, in the case of non-citizen victims, visa applications to collect data. Since 2000, when the T-visa program began, thousands of people have applied, and the number of yearly applicants has steadily increased as victims and advocates have become more aware of the program. (The same is true for U visas, which are designed for victims of general crimes and are now so frequently requested that they have a fifty-month waiting period.) The T visa has proved to be a reliable safety net for survivors of trafficking, and no viable alternative exists for those who are rejected or don’t apply.

Trump has tried to establish himself as a crusader against trafficking. The issue is bipartisan, appealing equally to left-leaning labor reformers and evangelical Christians. In October, 2018, Trump was the first President to address an interagency task-force meeting on trafficking. “Our country will not rest until we have put these vile organizations out of business and rescued every last victim,” he said in his speech. In an op-ed published last November, in the Washington Post, Ivanka Trump touted the President’s appearance at the task-force meeting as one of his many accomplishments. In January (which is National Slavery and Human-Trafficking Prevention Month), Trump held a roundtable discussion, in Texas, in which he made reference to human trafficking, claiming that building a border wall would “stop it cold.” Later in the month, as he defended the government shutdown, Trump relied on one of his preferred images of trafficking: women being smuggled across the southern border, “tied up, with duct tape on their faces, put in the backs of vans.”

This is a false characterization of the problem. According to data from the Department of Justice, in 2017, roughly two-thirds of the trafficking victims who were served by organizations that received funding from the Office for Victims of Crime were U.S. citizens. Among non-citizens, illegal border-crossing is not typically the issue. “Most of the victims we work with come in on perfectly good visas,” Martina Vandenberg, the founder and president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, told me. This mischaracterization is part of a cynical strategy that uses trafficking to bolster arguments for harsh immigration policies and also makes it more difficult for non-citizen victims to remain safely in the U.S. Last year, despite having originally exempted people who were applying for humanitarian visas, the Administration announced that, beginning in mid-November, applicants who are denied T visas may be required to appear in immigration court, the first step in deportation proceedings. Because the change was presented as a separate, almost dully bureaucratic shift in the rules, officials have an easy defense: the T-visa program itself has not changed, Michael Bars, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, stressed in e-mails. But this is one of a few ostensibly minor changes the Trump Administration has made to the system that have already had an outsized impact on the trafficking community.

In the past two months, I have spoken to lawyers, advocates, and victims—andI’ve heard the testimonies of non-citizen victims through their lawyers and advocates when they were too scared to speak themselves—who report a chilling effect. Since the rule changed, in November, Vandenberg hasn’t filed an application for a single T visa. “At this point, you have to ask yourself whether it is ethical to apply for a visa when you’re putting your client in danger of deportation,” she said. Dilcia Molina, who works at a Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit called La Clínica del Pueblo, told me that she recently counselled a Salvadoran woman who had been impregnated by her trafficker and was desperate for an abortion. “She says, ‘Please don’t ask me to apply for a T visa. I saw on TV that the President hates people looking for visas or asylum,’ ” Molina recalled. As a result, victims who once freed themselves from trafficking with the support of the U.S. government are now being forced to choose between staying with their traffickers or escaping to a life of working illegally and avoiding immigration authorities. “For eighteen years”—since Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act—“we have built a system that is the envy of the world for treating trafficking survivors humanely,” Vandenberg said. “The Trump Administration has managed to tear it down in two years.”

When Trump was elected, advocates were reasonably confident that anti-trafficking legislation was strong enough and had enough support in Congress and government agencies to endure even the most capricious Presidency. Though protections like the Trafficking Victims Protection Act remain intact (Trump reauthorized the law last month), the Administration’s influence has been more insidious. Since the beginning of Trump’s term, even before the change in November, advocates for victims of trafficking had begun to notice changes in the process. Applicants for T visas who entered the country illegally are sometimes required to pay a nine-hundred-and-thirty-dollar filing fee to request that the government excuse their illegal entry. Under past Administrations, the fee was regularly waived if the victims were unable to pay. “Over the summer, these fee waivers were being rejected across the board,” Lori Cohen, the director of an anti-trafficking initiative at Sanctuary for Families, told me. “Trafficking victims were being asked to provide tax receipts to prove income. Guess what, brothels don’t provide tax receipts to trafficking victims. Johns don’t give receipts for services received.”

The Administration is also threatening to make life more dangerous for non-citizen trafficking victims in subtler ways. In September of last year, the President proposed “public charge” legislation that would penalize both immigrants who have received government assistance and emigrants applying for entrance to the U.S. who seem likely to need assistance in the future. The law would spare humanitarian-visa applicants entirely, and it would also spare some humanitarian-visa holders applying to adjust their immigration status, but it wouldn’t do so automatically; visa-holders would have to apply for a waiver, which would be adjudicated by U.S.C.I.S. “They have debt, medical issues, mental-health issues, lost employment, no credit history, and now they are being told, ‘If you access public benefits, you may end up being deported,’ ” Jean Bruggeman, the executive director of the anti-trafficking coalition Freedom Network USA, said. “But if they don’t access them, they are likely to go back into the underground economy, where, once again, they will be trafficked. It’s like telling survivors of domestic violence, ‘Here are these lovely shelters; if you come and stay in one, we will deport you.’ ”

Since Trump’s announcement in November, advocates have noticed that, after receiving applications for T visas, immigration authorities have begun asking that the victims and their lawyers provide further proof that the applicants were trafficked. “We would very rarely get requests for more evidence,” Katherine Soltis, an attorney at an immigrant-services nonprofit in Washington, D.C., called Ayuda, said. “Now it’s nearly every case.” Authorities are even more likely to scrutinize cases when clients committed crimes during their time in captivity. “There has been a dramatic shift in T-visa applicants getting requests for further evidence based on arrest history,” Sabrina Talukder, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society in New York, told me. A year ago, she met a client who had been trafficked after she ran away from an abusive home life. “Her story is very common among L.G.B.T.Q. youth,” Talukder said. “It’s made more complicated because she is undocumented. People won’t hire her, and so she’s vulnerable and at risk of being trafficked again in order to survive.” Talukder explained to the client that, because she had been arrested for petty crimes connected to her trafficking, she would almost certainly receive a request for more evidence, which would lead to scrutiny of her record and the strong possibility that her application would be denied and she would be deported. Decisions are discretionary, leaving lawyers and victims uncertain about why they were denied and what that denial means for future applications. Considering the risk, the client decided not to apply for a T visa. “Congress has stated, in reauthorizing the T.V.P.A., that L.G.B.T.Q. youth are at particular risk,” Talukder told me. “This is designed for her in so many ways. It’s horrifying.”

Last year, the Department of Justice announced that certain grants that were provided by the Office for Victims of Crime, and that organizations used to help people clear their criminal records, can no longer be used for that purpose. The O.V.C. still funds anti-trafficking projects, but for many victims who emerged from trafficking having committed crimes that were directly part of their trafficking, like prostitution, or that were tangential to it, like loitering or theft, that legal service was crucial to their recovery. Criminal records keep victims from coming forward, or, if they do come forward, prevent them from getting jobs, affordable housing, and, crucially, visas and green cards. The O.V.C. grants allowed lawyers to do the difficult, intricate work of applying, often in a variety of jurisdictions, to vacate records. This change, another ostensibly minor one, is sure to make the lives of citizen and non-citizen victims of trafficking harder and more dangerous. “It’s very punitive and targeted,” Jessica Emerson, a lawyer who works with the Survivor Reëntry Project, a group that helps trafficking victims vacate their records, said. “The thinking is that criminals are criminals. And we don’t do anything to help criminals.” When I spoke to Emerson, she and her colleague Kate Mogulescu were at a conference, training other lawyers on the process for filing records to be vacated; both their work and the conference itself relied on O.V.C. funding.

Scaling back these services isn’t just cruel; it’s shortsighted. Programs that help victims of trafficking—in particular, T visas—are indispensable tools for the U.S. government in its efforts to stop trafficking. The majority of successful trafficking prosecutions involve victims who provide evidence and testimony with the hope—almost a guarantee under previous Administrations—that they will receive protection and services to help them. Through the application process for T visas, victims are encouraged, but not obliged, to aid in the investigation of their traffickers, which leads to more prosecutions and better statistics. “Our clients come forward and provide extremely detailed information about how the rings operated, where they lived, where they frequented—detailed information that then helped Homeland Security develop a robust case that the Justice Department could prosecute,” Cohen said. Now she thinks twice before recommending her clients as witnesses. “Before, if they told us they would be deported or targeted if they came forward, we could tell them, ‘That’s not true,’ ” Cohen said. “Now we can’t.”

Trump often cites prosecutions that have occurred under his Administration as evidence of his fight against trafficking. In the lead-up to Trump’s trip to the border, the Department of Justice (breaking its shutdown-caused silence) tweeted two press releases about the prosecution and sentencing of men involved in the Rendon-Reyes ring, a trafficking group of mostly Mexican nationals that was first broken up in 2013, during the Obama Administration. Talukder, from Legal Aid, represents one of the victims of the Rendon-Reyes ring. After the victim came forward, in 2014, her story followed a once-typical narrative: she testified against her traffickers, which made it impossible for her to go back to Mexico and live among their friends and family, and then received a T visa, which allowed her to stay in the U.S. Since the rule change in November, Talukder has applied for half of the T visas that she normally would have.

Trafficking thrives in the shadows, so, for now, the impact of these changes might be only perceptible to the victims and the advocates who work with those victims. It will take many months before the chill around T visas is reflected in U.S.C.I.S. statistics, and, without any definitive data available on the extent of trafficking in the U.S., it will remain difficult to gauge its long-term effects. That’s one of the reasons that Trump is able to present himself as a champion of survivors despite experts raging against him and his policies. This week, the White House announced that one of Trump’s guests at his State of the Union address, on Tuesday, will be a human-trafficking investigator from the Department of Homeland Security. Advocates are worried about how the President will frame the issue. “All of us working on human trafficking, we are tired of being the Trump Administration’s fig leaf,” Vandenberg said.

On Wednesday, survivors across the country began fielding requests from the Blue Campaign, the D.H.S.’s human-trafficking outreach and prevention project. The D.H.S. was looking for a survivor to attend a press conference on trafficking with the President on Friday, and they were very clear about who they wanted. “They asked for a survivor who had crossed the southern border,” Nat Paul, a survivor of human trafficking and a human-rights advocate, told me. (A spokesperson for the D.H.S. declined to comment.)

Until recently, Paul was part of the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking under Trump; she had been recruited by the State Department to represent the L.G.B.T.Q. community. In November, though, she resigned, citing, among other things, the Administration’s habit of using her “dead name” (the name she was given at birth) and her rising concern that non-citizen victims had become targets for deportation. She was quick to praise the remaining members (and the State Department officials who had recommended her), but she had felt ignored in D.C.; one conservative senator, she told me, dismissed the Council as “only victims.” Matul had also tried to remain hopeful when Trump was elected, but she did not remain on the Council. “I don’t know if I could work with an Administration that doesn’t have the same values I have,” she told me. Evelyn Chumbow, an inaugural member who is originally from Cameroon, also resigned, citing her worry that the Administration doesn’t care about the disproportionate effect that trafficking has on people of color. “Americans would be ashamed to know that there are Africans and African-Americans still being sold into slavery,” she said.

Some survivors of trafficking work closely with government projects like the Blue Campaign; they have to constantly negotiate their advocacy work with those government programs with their concerns about the President’s rhetoric. As news of the proposed meeting spread through the survivor community, it set off alarms. “Our concern was that the White House would use the trafficking issue to get funding for the wall,” Matul said. Paul was similarly worried. “We wanted to find a strong and experienced advocate who would not play into the myth of a duct-taped woman thrown into a trunk,” she told me. Survivors passed along a name: Suamhirs Piraino-Guzman, a Honduran-American man who had previously served on the Council. He ticked some of the Administration’s boxes: he was from Central America; he had been sexually exploited; and he had crossed the southern border. In other, important ways, he defied Trump’s portrayal of trafficking. Piraino-Guzman wasn’t bound and hidden in the back of a car. When he was fourteen, traffickers brought him through an official port of entry with forged documents; he was drugged and put on display so that U.S. border authorities would think that he was sick and let him through. That trick worked for the next six months, during which Piraino-Guzman was transported legally, with documents, through airports around the country. He was drugged, sold, and raped an estimated two hundred times.

Even if advocates wanted to give Trump his perfect survivor, they would have had a difficult time finding one. The image conveyed by Trump is not a complete fiction, but it comes close. “I have talked to others at Freedom Network who have provided services for hundreds of survivors in the U.S., and none of us know someone who fits that profile,” Bruggeman told me. “We know people who came in on legal visas. We know people who paid smugglers and then crossed the border and then were sold to traffickers. People come across the border in various ways, but no one has any familiarity with anyone who came in bound and gagged.” And among non-citizens, labor trafficking is as much a concern as sex trafficking. “We have huge cases, ten or fifteen or twenty people coming here on temporary work visas,” Matul told me. “They are coming here to work, and they end up being trafficked.”

When Paraino-Guzman was approached about the request, he told me, “My first thought was no way in hell. These people are trying to use a survivor story to make a pro-wall argument.” Then he thought it over; he is supportive of the Blue Campaign’s goals, and he thought that something productive might come out of a meeting. “If I don’t go and provide the correct and experience-based narrative, they are going to find someone whose message can be manipulated,” he said. Paraino-Guzman told the D.H.S. that he was interested, but he set some guidelines. He would have to speak—“If they just want a photo op, I won’t be there,” he said—and he wanted more information before he agreed to go. “I asked questions,” he said. “What are you planning to do? Why do you have so many specific requests about the survivor?”

While waiting for the D.H.S.’s decision, Piraino-Guzman read a Fox News op-ed by Timothy Ballard, a former D.H.S. agent who went on to found the anti-trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad. Ballard’s group has long drawn criticism for its tactics, which involve elaborate stings. When Piraino-Guzman read Ballard’s op-ed, titled “I’ve Fought Sex Trafficking as a D.H.S. Special Agent. We Need to Build the Wall for the Children,” he said, “My blood boiled. This organization says they are protectors of kids, and here you are pushing a narrative that puts kids in danger.” He made his opinion known on Twitter: “What a disgusting display,” he wrote. “As a sex trafficking survivor that was brought to this country, a wall won’t stop traffickers. I was brought in through an actual POE and the traffickers used false documents. stop trying to make a wall argument based on horrible, racist information.” Five minutes later, a D.H.S. representative sent an e-mail saying, politely, that Piraino-Guzman wouldn’t be needed on Friday. “It was weird,” he said.

Survivor-less, Trump doubled down on his narrative about trafficking and the wall. He held his press conference, and, afterward, the White House released a fact sheet that uses actual numbers to present a mostly imaginary vision of trafficking across the border. It notes that, during a migrant’s journey, he or she is at grave risk of sexual assault and violence, which readers might mistakenly conflate with sex trafficking. It cites a decrease in illegal border crossings in parts of the country that include a physical barrier, making no attempt to show how many, among those who crossed the borders, were victims of trafficking. The only data point on the fact sheet that specifically describes trafficking is the number of arrests made by ice and Homeland Security: fifteen hundred and eighty-eight in 2018. The sheet does not elaborate on those arrests, other than to point out that, among them, only forty-five were for labor trafficking. These figures mean little without context. They reflect arrests in the U.S., but not specifically of people who crossed the border illegally. And the fact that the vast majority of arrests were for sex trafficking does not mean that labor trafficking is less prevalent; it just means that it’s less of a priority for law-enforcement officials. Nearly all federal criminal prosecutions of traffickers are for sex trafficking, while nearly all civil cases are for labor trafficking. Those victims exist; they just can’t get the Trump Administration to see them.

Matul often thinks about what her life would be like if she had been sold into slavery in America in 2017 rather than in 1997. Would she have been brave enough to write that letter asking for help? Would she, after listening to a cast lawyer­ outline the new risks of applying for a T visa, have done so anyway? Would she have been on the Council? Would any such Council exist? “At cast, they told me that, under U.S. law, no one could not pay me for the work that I do, or abuse me, even though I was illegal,” she said. “I can’t imagine how I would feel today—to be scared of my trafficker and scared of being deported.”

Get our groundbreaking reporting on women

Get The Fuller Project in your inbox weekly
Get The Fuller Project in your inbox weekly