Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States

Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States

by Denise Brennan

ISBN: 9780822356332

Publisher Duke University Press Books

Published in Business & Money/Human Resources, Nonfiction/Women's Studies

Are you an AUTHOR? Click here to include your books on

Sample Chapter


Dangerous Labor


In her office in a run-down neighborhood in Los Angeles, an organizer with a migrants' rights organization was worried. They were getting more calls every day. With the recession and recent anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona, migrant communities were rattled. Fear was palpable. Those living on a razor's edge were losing their minimum-wage jobs or having their hours scaled back, falling behind on rent, and getting evicted. Those working, the organizer explained, "tolerate all kinds of abuses to keep their jobs; they don't complain. They don't complain about terrible housing conditions either." Fearful of getting deported, they keep quiet and hold on.

* * *

At a press conference at a community center in Washington, D.C., a collaborative team of researchers reported that the D.C. police were targeting anyone who "looked" like a sex worker. Racial minorities, transgender individuals, anyone wearing certain kinds of clothes or walking in certain areas of town were being harassed (with verbal slurs, physical battering, and sexual assault) and arrested. They recounted what they heard throughout Washington: "We can't work—or even just walk—safely in our neighborhoods."

* * *

The story the organizer in Los Angeles tells—of worry, vulnerability, exploitation, and poverty—is one told by migrants' rights organizers around the United States. An organizer in the Washington, D.C., area tells of domestic workers who fear that their employers would fire them if they know the women attend domestic workers' rights meetings. A day laborer organizer in Virginia explains that he has never met a worker who has not been cheated by an employer. Farmworker activists in California tell of foremen sexually assaulting women workers, widespread wage theft, and regular exposure to pesticides.

The story the community researchers in Washington tell of danger at every turn is similar to what sex worker rights activists and researchers have heard throughout the United States. Seeking to "end demand" for prostitution as a strategy to end trafficking, antiprostitution forces have engaged in an all-out attack on anyone presumed to be in sex work. In the name of "rescuing" trafficking victims, those who choose to work in the sex sector—both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals—have been incarcerated (and deported in the case of undocumented migrants). Justified as saving women from coercion in the sex sector, the "rescues" themselves can be coercive and push already vulnerable workers further underground.

Two Communities under Attack: Migrants and Sex Workers

At first glance, these two communities—low-wage migrants (undocumented and documented) and workers in the sex sector (undocumented and documented)—may seem to have little in common. Yet both communities labor at the margins of legality, and thus both constantly face the possibility of arrest and incarceration. Those who lack legal status in the United States also face the possibility of deportation. Both communities have experienced targeted raids and arrests. Both have been trying to labor undetected. And both face great risks if they report abuses that either they or their coworkers experience.

This chapter focuses on the immigration and sexual politics shaping antitrafficking policy in the United States. I examine the fallout of antiimmigrant and antiprostitution policies on vulnerable workers and, ultimately, on the effectiveness of antitrafficking work. With local policies (such as 287(g) agreements and "secure communities" programs) and statewide legislation (such as in Arizona and Alabama) targeting undocumented migrants and coercive rescues occurring in all kinds of sex sector venues (massage parlors, dance clubs, brothels) and in public spaces, workers are unlikely to report any level of exploitation. The hyperscrutiny of the sex sector, meanwhile, often has eclipsed efforts to expose exploitation in other labor sectors. In common parlance trafficking has become synonymous with prostitution. Forced labor is simply invisible, overshadowed by the dominant discourse of sex trafficking. The reality of migrant exploitation, however, is all around us. With migrants often performing some of the most low-paying, insecure, and dangerous jobs throughout both rural and urban United States, their precarious labor is an essential element in today's economy. Low-wage migrants do work that is ubiquitous: picking crops, washing restaurant dishes, building houses, and taking care of children. But since undocumented migration is a political hot button, the link to forced labor is ignored. Instead, those who control the terms of debate, images, policies, and resource allocation focus exclusively on trafficking-as-sex trafficking. The failure to enforce labor laws and to protect the rights of all workers—including undocumented migrants and those working in the sex sector—creates the conditions that allow forced labor to flourish.

This chapter is divided into two sections: the assault on migrants in section I and the assault on sex workers in section II. While the rest of the book focuses on life in and after forced labor, section I examines the less abusive—but more widespread—exploitative practices that characterize many work sites where migrants labor. I highlight a number of factors that prevent exploited migrants from seeking help from community-based organizations or law enforcement to underscore how unlikely it is for extremely exploited workers to do so. Section II continues to explore this connection between vulnerable communities' fear of law enforcement, silence about abuse, and the paltry number of T visas issued. I argue that the conflation of trafficking with sex trafficking, particularly during the George W. Bush administration, resulted in a myopic focus on exploitation in only one labor sector: the sex sector. In the process, exploited workers in other labor sectors have gone unassisted and sex workers have become more vulnerable, with their livelihood under attack in the fight against trafficking.


Almost Trafficking

The story of living and laboring precariously in Los Angeles that opens this chapter—and the abuses that stem from this precariousness—is a recurring tale in the political economy of migrant labor. To understand cases of extreme abuse—trafficking into forced labor—we first need to understand the forms of abuse that happen every day in places where migrants work and live. Migrants stay quiet about this everyday exploitation. Employers and landlords try to get away with all they can. They are able to do so, in large part, because of workers' and tenants' undocumented status (or visa status that ties them to one employer). These vulnerable workers know that at any time they may be cheated out of their wages and asked to do dangerous work. For some, threats of violence as well as instances of actual violence have been regular features of their experiences working in the United States. Conceptualizing the effects of policing legality, the anthropologist Susan Coutin describes undocumented migrants as living in "holes" within the national territory, where laws and courts protect everyone except them. Exclusion produces silences. Silent about everything from domestic abuse in their home to robberies in their community and assaults and exploitation in their workplace, undocumented migrants strive to remain unnoticed. As they parent, live, and work alongside citizen family members, neighbors, and friends, they navigate the United States with only minimal protections that are woefully underenforced.

The domestic worker organizer mentioned earlier who reaches out to fearful domestic workers describes an extensive web of employer control: "Their employers know they don't have family here. And since they control their hours so much they [the employers] know that they [their employees] have not made friends. They know the women are alone here, so if they say they have to leave for a few hours, they may even follow them." This threatening work environment, in which employers monitor their employees' down time may not be trafficking, but it is close. Worker-activists and labor organizers describe cases that teeter on the brink of forced labor. Although these cases may not qualify as trafficking, they involve daily abuse and powerful forms of intimidation nonetheless. Within this gray area of exploitation, there can be bad working conditions and really bad working conditions, none of which may amount to a trafficking case. The roughly 3,500 individuals who have received the DHS stamp of approval as "trafficked" (in the form of a t visa) are on the extreme end of the more widespread phenomenon of everyday exploitation of migrant workers, both documented and undocumented.

The Migration Politics of Trafficking

Two major anti-immigrant actions during President Obama's first term profoundly affected migrants and their communities: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) ramped up workplace raids at work sites where undocumented workers were presumed to labor, and states and localities passed anti-immigrant legislation. All told, roughly 1.6 million individuals were deported during the Obama administration's first term. Highly publicized ice raids on workplaces have sent clear messages to exploited migrants to not report abuse. They also have torn apart families and communities. During an ICE raid in 2008 at a meat-processing plant in Postville, Iowa, agents apprehended 389 undocumented workers and charged, convicted, and sentenced nearly three hundred of them within ten days. Group trials were held at temporary fairgrounds. The American Civil Liberties Union commented that the close coordination before the raid between the prosecutor and the chief judge to hasten the process and structure plea agreements was highly irregular and raised due process concerns. A translator at the plant later reported, "In some cases both parents were picked up and small children were left behind for up to 72 hours." Abuses abounded at another high-profile ICE raid, just months after the raid in Postville. At least 595 workers were detained at an electrical transformer plant owned by Howard Industries in Laurel, Mississippi. An organizer for the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance described the event: "It's just horrific. We've got two families where the mom and the dad were released with ankle bracelets. They've got bills to pay and kids to feed. We've got a woman who is 24, 26 weeks pregnant, and she's got a husband, brother, father and brother-in-law who were detained."

Secure Communities programs and 287(g) programs—which empower local police officers to check the immigration status of individuals stopped for other possible violations—have critically damaged trust between migrant communities and law enforcement. Taken together, these offensives have created a state of siege in communities where migrants, documented and undocumented, work and live. This erosion of trust compromises community members' safety. Among the unreported abuses that the community organizer in Los Angeles references (in this chapter's opening) is the rape of a teenage girl by a neighbor who had taunted her that he would report her family to immigration if she told anyone. "This is what is happening. People are not reporting crimes in our communities."

With local law enforcement now functioning as border patrol agents, there are, in effect, patrols hunting for undocumented migrants deep within U.S. borders. At the same time, some community members lobby for the deportation of "illegal aliens" along with creating an unwelcoming atmosphere as a way to reduce immigration. "Attrition through enforcement" has become a mantra among these antimigrant activists. As a result, migrants without documentation live in chronic fear of detection, detention, and deportation. And the assault on migrants takes new forms every day. For example, a front-page story in the New York Times reported on a new technique to hunt down migrants: U.S. residents along the U.S.-Mexico border text Border Patrol agents if they see anyone trying to cross. The effects of this policing by law enforcement agents as well as ordinary citizens terrifies and unmoors. These efforts also are at odds with campaigns to prevent trafficking, which rely on timely reporting of abusive employers from migrants themselves.

These ICE raids and the Obama administration's expansion of 287(g) agreements have deepened the atmosphere of fear and silence around labor abuses. As states pass Arizona-and Alabama-style anti-immigrant legislation, and localities continue to enact and enforce policies that target migrants, more and more foreign nationals are likely to mistrust law enforcement, both local and federal. The very real risk of detention and deportation (with a ten-year re-entry ban) allows unscrupulous or abusive employers to threaten, exploit, and even physically harm their employees. An H-2B forestry worker from Guatemala recounted how employers deployed the threat of deportation as a silencing mechanism: "When the supervisor would see that a person was ready to leave the job because the pay was so bad, he would take our papers from us. He would rip up our visas and say, 'You don't want to work? Get of here then. You don't want to work? Right now I'll call immigration to take your papers and deport you." Since in many instances employers take workers' passports and visas, those who decide to take their chances and leave may have to do so without any of their documents. One h-2 worker who was recruited to work in the southeastern United States explained: "Since I couldn't prove that I was in the country legally, I was nervous to even go out to the store for fear that I would be stopped by the police."

While immigration raids and programs that target migrants strain notions of justice and morality, the legal relief and social service benefits that trafficked persons receive expose the contradictory logic that undergirds U.S. immigration policy. Although there is widespread consensus among law enforcement, migrant labor organizers and attorneys, and social workers that large numbers of migrants are working in situations of forced labor, finding them has been a challenge in this anti-immigrant atmosphere. With the TVPA allowing up to five thousand t visas to be issued every year, in theory, by the end of 2012 as many as sixty thousand persons could have received T visas. Even the scale of trafficking to the United States is uncertain. After years of fluctuating statistics, as I write this, the latest numbers the U.S government circulated was an estimate of 14,500 to 17,500 persons trafficked to the United States every year. But there is little doubt that egregious forms of exploitation occur every day at work sites where migrants labor—for example, in restaurant kitchens, fields, and factories.

Today's Jim Crow

This widespread abuse of migrants—both documented and undocumented—often in communities with a long history of racial discrimination, has prompted labor organizers and civil rights leaders to refer to life in certain counties and states as life under "Juan Crow." Migrants, particularly those whose racial identities are not "white," fear being stopped by law enforcement at any moment. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reports, "Like African Americans during the height of Jim Crow, many Latinos in the South live in constant fear of being unfairly targeted by the police as they go about their daily lives. Just the simple acts of driving to work or taking a child to a soccer match can result in intimidation or abuse—regardless of a Latino's immigration status." In fact a number of those interviewed for the SPLC report described the South as a "war zone" for immigrants, "a place where harassment and routine inconvenience is a way of life and where life-altering consequences are always just one false step away." One grower in North Carolina put it plainly: "The North won the War on paper but we confederates actually won because we kept our slaves. First we had sharecroppers, then tenant farmers and now we have Mexicans." An attorney representing low-wage workers in the South explains: "With or without documentation, no matter how you arrange it, it's not a level playing field. The workers don't have a life. One grower said to me, 'Why would I want a U.S. worker—he may have to take off work to take his kids to the doctor.'"

Excerpted from "Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States" by Denise Brennan. Copyright © 2013 by Denise Brennan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Thanks for reading!

Join BookDaily now and receive featured titles to sample for free by email.
Reading a book excerpt is the best way to evaluate it before you spend your time or money.

Just enter your email address and password below to get started:


Your email address is safe with us. Privacy policy
By clicking ”Get Started“ you agree to the Terms of Use. All fields are required

Instant Bonus: Get immediate access to a daily updated listing of free ebooks from Amazon when you confirm your account!

Author Profile

Amazon Reviews