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Labor Trafficking Is A Crime You Probably Don't Notice

Labor trafficking disproportionately affects immigrants, who are vulnerable due to their lack of immigration status and work authorization. (Josue Isai Ramos Figueroa/Unsplash)
Labor trafficking disproportionately affects immigrants, who are vulnerable due to their lack of immigration status and work authorization. (Josue Isai Ramos Figueroa/Unsplash)

It has been more than four years since Catherine Piedad called 911 from a $1.7 million home in Newton.

In 2015, she worked long hours to care for a Russian family’s young twins. Her passport was taken, and she slept in a small room with little light and nowhere to store her clothes. When she asked to be paid, her employer threatened to send her back to the Philippines. She feared deportation and did not know who to trust.

Despite her fear, she called 911. Law enforcement helped her to leave the family’s home but did little else. They did not see her case as “labor trafficking.” Instead, the incident was labeled a “labor dispute.” Piedad struggled to access her rights — despite the robust federal and state laws designed to protect her.

You’ve probably heard of sex trafficking, which often involves perpetrators who force, trick or coerce victims into sexual servitude. Although difficult to see, sex trafficking is often visible to law enforcement through the internet: perpetrators sometimes leave a footprint online, which can provide a critical entry point for criminal investigations.

Under Massachusetts law, labor trafficking includes forced or coerced work. But it’s often invisible — with no online footprints — leaving investigators with few clues about how to detect and investigate the crime. It also disproportionately affects immigrants, who are vulnerable due to their lack of immigration status and work authorization. It touches workers who are threatened with deportation to work in construction for long hours with little pay, restaurant workers who live in housing provided by their employers and domestic workers, like Piedad, whose passports have been confiscated.

... labor trafficking cases remain hidden because law enforcement may not understand the law or confuse labor trafficking with other crimes

Research has shown that labor trafficking cases remain hidden because law enforcement may not understand the law or confuse labor trafficking with other crimes. This month, Boston University, in partnership with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, unveiled a new, web-based app to help investigators identify labor trafficking in Massachusetts.

The app, called RESULT (short for Recognize & Evaluate Signs to Uncover Labor Trafficking) seeks to bridge that gap by putting an easy-to-use tool in the hands of investigators. The RESULT app provides investigators with questions to ask, and helps to assess whether cases amount to labor trafficking under Massachusetts law. By giving investigators the tools to inform survivors about their rights, it hopes to give survivors the courage to step forward and report crime.

The Boston Globe covered Piedad’s story in 2015 and cases like hers continue to emerge today. This year, the BU Law Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Program, represented over 30 survivors of labor trafficking. Yet, their voices often are unheard. They are increasingly silenced by federal policies focused on immigration enforcement. Meanwhile, workers like Piedad face an even more uncertain battle for their futures.

There were early signs that the Trump administration would strengthen efforts to combat trafficking. In 2018, President Trump claimed that human trafficking is “worse than it’s ever been in the history of this world.” He issued an executive order to target transnational criminal operations and reduce human trafficking. Just last year, the U.S. Department of Justice bolstered funding for trafficking investigations, providing $23.1 million to state and local law enforcement agencies as well as 17 victim service providers, a significant increase from $2.8 million in 2017.

... the Trump administration has steadily and quietly implemented policies to erode protections for immigrant survivors

Yet, despite this rhetorical commitment to anti-trafficking efforts, the Trump administration has steadily and quietly implemented policies to erode protections for immigrant survivors. According to federal anti-trafficking law, immigrant survivors of trafficking may qualify for T visas if they are a victim of a “severe form of human trafficking” and cooperate with law enforcement if an adult, among other things. (A T visa allows recipients to obtain legal status, the ability to work, and a pathway to a green card.) While 5,000 T visas are available annually, they have become harder to obtain under the Trump administration. In 2018, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), only 576 T visas were approved in the United States, a decrease from 2017 and 2016.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has made it easier to deport immigrant survivors of trafficking. In June 2018, USCIS implemented a new policy to place applicants for T visas in removal proceedings if their applications are denied, meanwhile it’s become more difficult for survivors obtain continuances while their T visas are pending. This has had a profound chilling effect, discouraging survivors from stepping forward to report crimes to law enforcement.

There have also been fewer federal criminal investigations and prosecutions of traffickers under the Trump administration. Efforts at the state and local level have not fared better. In Massachusetts, despite passing anti-trafficking state legislation in 2011, there has yet to be even one successful prosecution under the new labor trafficking statute. (This is in comparison to charging 216 defendants sex trafficking cases, resulting in 18 convictions, as of May 2019.)

The voices of survivors of labor trafficking have grown quiet and it will take new tools, along with state and local leadership, to counteract these devastating federal policies. RESULT is a step in the right direction. It will not erase the challenges that survivors will face. But, it means that a survivor, like Catherine Piedad, can call 911 and have the confidence that she will be heard.

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Julie Dahlstrom Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Dahlstrom is a clinical associate professor and the director of the BU Law Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking.

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