States Cracking Down on Modern Slavery in the U.S.

Human-trafficking legislation is gaining momentum, and targeting modern-day slavery is a critical issue, but it's in some ways low-hanging fruit.

By Michelle Chen Jul 19, 2010

If you’re troubled by the reports of state governments trending toward Arizona-like anti-immigrant legislation, there is one area where states appear to be more interested in protecting civil rights than undermining them. Coinciding with a major State Department report on human trafficking around the world, states are moving to clamp down on human trafficking, a modern-day form of slavery intricately tied to global migration. The Washington Post reports:

The laws focus on practices that have remained largely hidden — traffickers’ coercion of victims into becoming prostitutes, forced laborers or domestic slaves. Some states have introduced measures that criminalize human trafficking specifically for the first time. Advocates say the efforts signal that lawmakers are gaining a fuller appreciation of the scope of human trafficking. So far this year, more than 40 bills have been enacted and roughly 350 introduced. That compares with just eight bills adopted across the country in 2006, according to the Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking group based in Washington.

According to Polaris’s legislative tracking site, Colorado passed a law earlier this year that criminalizes "coercion of involuntary servitude," which may including not just direct threats of violence, but also:

(a) Withholding or threatening to destroy documents relating to a person’s immigration status;

(b) Threatening to notify law enforcement officials that a person is present in the United States in violation of federal immigration laws…

The law takes aim at tactics employers commonly use to frighten workers from fleeing or seeking help. The thrust of the legislation mirrors the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a landmark federal law that provides special assistance to survivors, including conditional immigration relief. But curiously, the Colorado law also creates a special felony category for adults who are "illegally present in the United States." While such statutes have helped advocates take legal and political action against exploitative employers, the multi-tiered penalties and language raises questions about what, and whom, the laws target. Such laws often bend through the prism of gender. Some of the bills listed by Polaris explicitly criminalize sex trafficking, rather than attacking forced labor more broadly. Many advocates question this segregation of prostitution-related crimes versus other, more-prevalent forms of labor trafficking in sectors like agriculture and domestic service. What should we make of the increasingly tangled web of state and federal statutes regarding immigrants? Are some undocumented immigrants more deserving of protection and sympathy than others? When advocates push legislation that grants relief to specific classes of victims, do they risk balkanizing the movement for a wholesale overhaul of immigration and border policies? Many anti-trafficking activists do acknowledge the continuum of exploitation driven by an unjust immigration system. In an earlier report on the State Department’s anti-trafficking measures, Sienna Baskin, an attorney with the Sex Workers Project, which takes a human-rights-based, harm-reduction approach to advocacy:

A highly punitive and restrictive immigration system is a factor that leads people to take risks in migrating, sometimes ending up trafficked, although we must also look at poverty, persecution and gender inequities as factors. The growing problem of labor exploitation could be lessened by comprehensive immigration reform that provides visas and fair wages to all workers.

There may be an alternative approach in bills like the domestic workers law just enacted in New York. The basis of the legislation is not victimology, but the alignment of domestic workers’ labor rights with federal labor regulations, which have long shut out "informal" workers. There’s a place for laws that specifically target especially egregious rights violations. Yet even a sweeping initiative like the TVPA–while it has helped legalize some survivors–can’t combat the global socioeconomic inequality at the root of the worst labor abuses. Targeting modern-day slavery is a critical issue, but it’s in some ways low-hanging fruit. Seeding meaningful justice for immigrants requires that laws themselves transcend borders, laying the groundwork for social and economic rights for all. Photo: WeNews via flickr