January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. It’s estimated that there are 25 million victims of human trafficking around the world and that human trafficking is a $150 billion per year industry globally. In the U.S., the National Human Trafficking Hotline has received almost 250,000 contacts, and more than 56,000 cases of human trafficking have been reported since 2007.
While human trafficking—also known as modern-day slavery—is widely discussed, it’s not widely understood. There’s a common misconception that human trafficking and human smuggling are interchangeable terms. But in fact, they are two distinct criminal activities. Human trafficking is the exploitation of individuals through the use of coercion, force, or fraud for the purpose of forced labor or commercial sex. Human smuggling, on the other hand, is when a person voluntarily—at least initially—acquires the services of smugglers to move them across international lines to enter illegally a country.
Even though they are different, however, smuggling often turns into trafficking, as migrants can fall into the hands of traffickers en route or once they reach their final destination.
Central America—primarily the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—and Mexico are the major origin and transit areas for smuggled migrants coming to the U.S. Hundreds of thousands of Central Americans and Mexicans who suffer from limited economic opportunities, widespread violence, and food insecurity, and who wish to come to the U.S. for a better life, a good job, and/or be reunited with family, pay exorbitant fees to smugglers to take them to America.
A migrant may pay roughly between $4,000 and $15,000 to be smuggled from Central America across Mexico into the U.S., making it a costly endeavor for people in the region where around 60% of Hondurans and Guatemalans, 42% of Mexicans, and 30% of El Salvadorans live in poverty.
Given how much migrants have to pay smugglers to come to America, many are subject to debt bondage, where personal debt is used to coerce exploitation. Smugglers may allow migrants to work off debts once in the U.S., instead of paying the smuggling fee. In other cases, smugglers can increase the price of their services during the journey to a price a migrant cannot afford. In either case, migrants can be coerced into commercial sex—such as prostitution or pornography—or forced labor, with the majority or all of their earnings being taken by the trafficker.
Likewise, if a migrant pays for smuggling fees in full upfront, instead of paying an initial cost and the rest upon arrival, as it is usually done, they are at bigger risk of becoming victims, since the smugglers no longer have the incentive to provide safe travel arrangements.
Trafficking victims may be reluctant to contact law enforcement because they fear the consequences they might face for illegal activity they were coerced to perform. Foreign victims in the U.S. have the added concern that they may not speak English and/or possess legal documentation to reside in the U.S. Isolation in the U.S., working in the informal economy that is not regulated, and threats against their family back home are other reasons migrants are vulnerable to trafficking.
The Polaris Project, which operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, found that recent migration/relocation was the top risk factor for human trafficking, that Latinos comprised a plurality of victims of reported trafficking cases, and that sex trafficking cases heavily outnumbered labor trafficking cases in 2018.
We haven’t done enough to combat the scourge of human trafficking in the United States. Multiple foreign and domestic policy adjustments are needed to improve the fight against human trafficking. In the foreign policy realm, the rule of law must be strengthened in Mexico and the Northern Triangle to reduce violence and corruption. On the domestic front, policy changes include securing the southern border, addressing the structural deficiencies of the American asylum system, and banning sanctuary policies.
Igor C. Magalhaes is an Immigration Legislative Fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.