Since taking office in 2017, the Trump administration has claimed that its human rights agenda centers on human trafficking. “My Administration continues to work to drive out the darkness human traffickers cast upon our world,” President Donald Trump wrote in a 2017 executive order declaring January 2018 National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. In a Washington Post op-ed, Ivanka Trump echoed her father’s claims that human trafficking was one of the government’s top priorities. “President Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionist movement gave America a unique inheritance: a principled commitment to fight slavery in all its pernicious forms,” she wrote. “This administration is continuing the fight to end modern slavery and using every tool at its disposal to achieve that critical goal.”
But when it comes to identifying the reality of trafficking inside the United States and fighting it, these claims are contradicted by many of the administration’s policies and much of its rhetoric. In many key ways, the Trump administration’s approach to trafficking in the United States has made matters worse for the most vulnerable communities. Anti-trafficking experts now worry that the government, by failing to recognize its failings, could do lasting damage to what has traditionally been considered the country’s top human rights report, the latest edition of which was released Thursday.
The State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report is a collaboration between a designated office in Washington and local U.S. embassies that evaluates government responses to trafficking around the world. It provides a detailed narrative and assigns a tier ranking to governments. (Tier 1 is the highest and Tier 3 the lowest, possibly incurring sanctions.) Over the years, the TIP Report has been seen to surpass the International Religious Freedom Report and the general human rights report in impact and authority. “It’s the power of comparison that the report provides that is so effective,” said Judith Kelley, a professor at Duke University and the author of Scorecard Diplomacy: Grading States to Influence Their Reputation and Behavior. “Local embassies are very engaged leading up to its publication.”
The report has been published since 2001, after the Trafficking Victims Prevention Act (TVPA) was passed by Congress in 2000 and became the gold standard of anti-trafficking legislation. The United States started ranking itself during President Barack Obama’s administration to lend more credibility to the report. “Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton said rightfully if we’re going to point the finger around the world, we need to point at ourselves, too,” said Alison Friedman, then the TIP office deputy director. The office consulted with nongovernmental organizations and legislators; assessed funding, victim services, and law enforcement response; and analyzed methods of data collection and prevention. In the end, the United States received a Tier 1 ranking, and it has never since been downgraded.
This year’s report has just been published. Like years prior, it contains some rankings that are sure to make headlines. Denmark, Germany, and Italy have been downgraded to Tier 2 countries, while Saudi Arabia, in spite of protests from experts and news reports (and in spite of a Tier 3 ranking), was left off the report’s list of countries that exploit child soldiers. The Philippines maintained its controversial Tier 1 ranking.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the United States received a Tier 1 ranking in this year’s report. But there is ample evidence that, like Italy and Germany, the country should have been downgraded. Over the past six months, I have closely reported on the impact that the Trump administration has had on trafficking in the United States. Some of the policy changes appear small—minor tweaks to grant funding or longer wait times for visa applications—and are often weighed against more positive steps, like an increase in general funding for victims services. But, taken together, these seemingly small changes amount to a systematic dismantling of services for America’s most vulnerable communities, particularly noncitizen victims.
The TIP Report, for example, traditionally highlights LGBTQ individuals as highly vulnerable to trafficking, but the Trump administration has removed various legal protections for the LGBTQ community, particularly for transgender individuals. Rachel Lloyd, the founder of New York’s Girls Educational & Mentoring Services, worries particularly about the administration’s scaling back of protections against discrimination in housing and health care, the lack of which can often produce trafficking victims. “Forty percent of the girls we serve are LGBTQ,” Lloyd said. “They are feeling unsafe.”
Many victims of trafficking are forced to commit crimes related to their trafficking situation, like prostitution. Because of that, clearing records is crucial to a trafficking victim’s recovery. “It’s one of our most requested services,” said Yvette Butler, who until recently was the director of policy and strategic partnerships at the Washington-based Amara Legal Center. “We want people to become productive members of society.” While Congress has increased funding to victims services, Trump’s Justice Department has eliminated grants that used to fund vacaturs, expungements, and sealing of criminal records.
The administration touts prosecutions as victories against trafficking, but in fiscal year 2018 federal investigations in the Justice Department decreased significantly, from 783 to 657, as did the number of defendants charged with human trafficking. In spite of repeated calls from NGOs and advocates, highlighted in multiple TIP Reports, for the government to focus on the equally urgent problem of labor trafficking in the United States, of those federal prosecutions 213 were for sex trafficking while only 17 were for labor trafficking.
Where the administration fails most profoundly is in its treatment of noncitizen victims of trafficking. Across the world, migrants are the most vulnerable to being trafficked, and the TIP Report highlights a government’s response to migrants. This year, Denmark, for instance, was downgraded to Tier 2 in part for its lack of protection for migrants. “The government continued to focus on the undocumented status of some foreign victims rather than screening for indicators of trafficking,” it reads. It points out that Denmark was failing to provide sufficient “incentives for victims to cooperate in investigations, such as residence permits.” Italy and Qatar, both Tier 2 countries, were cited for lack of protections for undocumented and migrant workers.