Low hanging fruit: Domestic minor sex trafficking v. foreign-born trafficked children

I have been conducting empirical research on child trafficking in the United States for over a decade. I began by “studying up”: looking at existing decision-makers, policies, and programs set up to prevent child trafficking, protect trafficked children, and prosecute perpetrators. Access to trafficked children and adolescents, guarded by their protectors almost as closely as by their traffickers, was impossible and research funds scarce; most of the money appropriated by the US Congress for anti-trafficking activities was spent on direct services to victims or information campaigns. Later on, as I gained trust of service providers, I was slowly able to meet a few survivors of child trafficking and begin “studying down”: examining the perspectives of survivors of child trafficking, analyzing the meaning they ascribe to their trafficking experiences, and identifying the matters that concern them as they rebuild their lives in America. In 2005, I received a grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and started interviewing survivors of child trafficking and their helpers in earnest. This research has served as a springboard for a book project on survivors of child trafficking.

At the time of my first foray into the field of child trafficking, the anti-trafficking efforts focused solely on foreign-born victims of child (and adult) trafficking. Under federal law, enshrined in the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), child victims of severe forms of human trafficking were defined as individuals under 18 years of age who have been induced to perform commercial sex acts or have been recruited, harbored, transported, provided, or obtained for labor or services through the use of “force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude.” While the TVPA of 2000 was silent on the issue of victims’ place of birth, the assumption was that the law was created to provide services and benefits to undocumented victims who otherwise might have been simply deported. It was presumed that U.S. citizens and other lawful residents already had access to the state and federal programs unavailable to their undocumented counterparts.

However, by late 2005, human rights and child advocates started expanding the category of trafficked children. Victims of child trafficking were no longer limited to foreign-born minors trafficked across international borders. “Advocates argued that there was a class of domestic trafficking victims: U.S. citizens and residents who travelled inside national borders as forced laborers—invariably young people and children used for sex.” As a result of these advocacy efforts, the TVPA was amended in 2008 to include domestic trafficking victims: U.S. citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs). This cohort is comprised mainly of persons whom we used to call commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC). More recently, this phenomenon is referred to as “domestic minor sex trafficking” (DMST) and defined as “the commercial sexual abuse of children through buying, selling, or trading their sexual services.”

As a scholar of international migration I focus on mobility across international borders and therefore continue to study exclusively foreign-born trafficked children and adolescents. However, in this essay I want to examine how the rhetorical and policy shift to domestic youth in prostitution has affected the broader efforts to fight trafficking of foreign nationals, especially children and adolescents, both in the sex work and in other industries.

The number game

In the late 1990s, the high profile Cadena-Sosa and Paoletti-Lemus cases had American law enforcement on high alert for other human trafficking situations involving immigrants. “From the Northern Mariana Islands to Chicago, Bethesda, Maryland, New York, and other cities, investigators were discovering cases of migrants who had been forced or tricked into jobs that usually involved prostitution, although officials were finding instances of garment sweatshop labor as well.” These alarming news reports raised a fundamental question: What is the scope of human trafficking in the United States? How many of the trafficked victims are children and adolescents?

A study by Richard Estes and the late Neil Weiner on the commercial sexual exploitation of children is often quoted as the authoritative source of the number of minors trafficked into the United States. Indeed, in the early 2000s Estes and Weiner, citing field interviews, estimated that approximately 15,000 children were trafficked to the U.S. annually. They projected that at least half of these youngsters, about 8,500, fall prey to commercial sexual exploitation as part of their trafficking experience. Mia Spangenberg, who studied child trafficking in New York City for ECPAT-USA, put forth the same statistic in her report without questioning its reliability.

These estimates were predicated on the early figures cited in the now-infamous report International Trafficking in Women to the United States: A Contemporary Manifestation of Slavery and Organized Crime by Amy O’Neill Richard. A young analyst at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the time, Richard mentioned in passing that estimates of the trafficking problem in the United States vary given differing definitions of what constitutes trafficking and that research was based on limited case studies. These caveats, however, did not stop her from quoting wide-ranging estimates that put the number of trafficked women and children at 700,000 to two million worldwide and at 45,000 to 50,000 people trafficked annually to the U.S. Thus, the number game had begun.

Richard’s report cited CIA figures that were later disputed. A front-page article in The Washington Post criticized the US Government’s alarming statements about “tidal waves” of trafficked persons entering the country as being based on methodologically flawed estimates. The same criticism about worldwide estimates promulgated by the US Department of State has been expressed in different fora by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the US Department of Justice, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which concluded that statistics provided by the J/TIP office were problematic because of “methodological weaknesses, gaps in data, and numerical discrepancies.” “With few empirical studies available, imagination seems to have filled the gaps in our knowledge,” asserted Sheldon X. Zhang. According to Jay S. Albanese, “The estimates of trafficking, both in the U.S. and worldwide, are not based on actual counts, and the basis for the estimates is not reproducible, so they fluctuate in unexpected ways and cannot be relied on to assess the extent of trafficking.” Following these criticisms, the estimates were downgraded to 17,500 of victims (adults and children) trafficked annually into the United States.

More recently, an unpublished but widely circulated report prepared by Senator Tom Coburn’s office, aptly titled Blind Faith: How Congress is Failing Trafficking Victims, again took issue with flawed estimates of the scope of human trafficking and the exorbitant resources spent on anti-trafficking initiatives. In Lee County, Florida, for example, of 42 potential human trafficking cases referred to the Ant-Trafficking Task Force in 2008, none were confirmed as trafficking cases. During the previous three years, despite many investigations, there was not a single confirmed and certified trafficking case either and only a handful of pre-certified victims. Yet, at the same time Lee County received further $250,000 in federal funds for the Task Force and the Office of Victims of Crime (OVC) provided $260,000.00 to Catholic Charities for comprehensive victims’ services for 18 months (2008-2010). Additionally, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) funded victim awareness and services through its “Rescue and Restore” initiatives in the same area, often duplicating efforts with little communication and/or coordination with the task forces in the area. This is but one example of money spent without any results.

Academics invariably begin their discussions of the scope of human trafficking by emphasizing that the number of trafficked persons worldwide—including children—is indeed difficult to measure. Many scholars have discussed the challenges of estimating the scale of human trafficking and the production of reliable statistics, and have subsequently called for improved methodologies to describe the unobserved. These debates notwithstanding, the demand for numbers, any numbers, means “Organizations feel compelled to supply them, lending false precisions and spurious authority to many reports.” And so the number game continues.

The U.S. Federal Government sponsored several studies to improve identification strategies, but so far they have not yielded any significant increase in identified cases. With the Trafficked Victims Protection Act (TVPA) allowing for up to 5,000 special visas for trafficked persons to be issued every year, by the end of 2014, potentially as many as 70,000 individuals could have received T visas. Yet, since the TVPA of 2000 through end of June 2014, 2,906 foreign-born trafficked adults and 622 foreign-born children under the age of 18 have been certified eligible for federally funded services. The total number of identified victims is estimated at 7,700 individuals, including approximately 700 youngsters under the age of 18. Lower-then-expected numbers of identified trafficked persons and prosecuted cases are attributed to several factors: the often-repeated claims regarding the clandestine nature of the trafficking phenomenon; inadequate enforcement of the provisions of the TVPA and limited resources for anti-trafficking efforts; insufficient coordination among governmental agencies; law enforcement agencies with limited experience in dealing with the crime, which makes identification of human trafficking challenging; or the fact that the estimates far exceed the reality and gravity of the situation which, in the absence of reliable data, take on mythical proportions. The latter assertion is not popular at all with anti-trafficking activists who see the small numbers of identified victims as a tip of the iceberg, never the iceberg itself.

Domestic victims: Low-hanging fruit

Members of Congress have been asking where all the money allocated for anti-trafficking activities has gone and why more victims have not been found. The answers have not gone much beyond the explanations invoking the clandestine nature of human trafficking and the resulting difficulties in counting and identifying a hidden population. Despite these excuses, the scramble to produce trafficked persons continued.

The 2008 amendment to the TVPA suddenly opened a new opportunity to indicate the enormity of human trafficking in the United States and boost the number of trafficked children and adolescents to astronomical proportions. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) says that as many as 300,000 young Americans are victimized by some form of human trafficking each year. Various advocates, including the “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” ad campaign, picked up the DOJ statement and began to claim that between 100,000 and 300,000 children are “enslaved and sold for sex in the United States.” What the advocates are forgetting is that the projected numbers of domestic minor sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children are as muddled as the numbers put forth a decade ago about foreign-born victims of human trafficking. Using a respondent driven sampling (RDS), Curtis and colleagues attempted to estimate CSEC prevalence rates in New York City. Despite rigorous methodology, the researchers encountered only a handful of victims, again underscoring the gap between estimates of trafficking and the number of officially identified cases.

And yet, human trafficking, especially domestic minor sex trafficking, continues to draw extensive public attention despite lack of reliable data. The shift of focus on DMST has service providers working with foreign-born survivors of trafficking worried that nobody is looking for foreign-born victims. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline received reports of 9,298 unique cases of human trafficking across the United States in its first five years of operation: 60 percent of these cases involved US citizens. Seventy-three percent of the 1,488 victims who called the NHTRC between 2008 and 2012 were English speakers. Only eight percent of the victims of sex trafficking were foreign nationals; the rest were U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.

In a recent interview, Walter, a director of a large social service agency in Texas told me that his program is almost exclusively working with victims of domestic minor sex trafficking. “We used to call them the CSEC [Commercially Sexually Exploited Children] kids,” he said, “now they are trafficked victims.” “We no longer get any referrals of foreign-born victims,” he added. Margaret, a director of children’s services at a large agency serving trafficked children in the Mid-Atlantic indicated that in the last few years, foreign-born trafficked children and adolescents have been identified mainly among apprehended unaccompanied children and youth in detention centers. “While the unaccompanied minors need and deserve protection and assistance, identification efforts should not be limited to detention centers,” she added. At a recent meeting with representatives of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), I learned that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is also focusing mainly on domestic victims. This piece of news was astounding. Why would immigration authorities be interested in CSEC kids? They are U.S. citizens, and thus outside ICE’s mandate.

The only logical conclusion that can be reached is that it is easier to identify English-speaking, U.S. citizen youth engaged in survival sex or American teen sex workers than foreign-born youths in domestic servitude, exploitative labor, and forced into the sex industry. Whether or not my hypothesis—that it is easier to find domestic victims—is true, it is a fact that domestic victims currently garner the most attention from child advocates, anti-trafficking activists, researchers, and funders. At a conference organized by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) in Washington, DC in May 2014, the number of grantees working with and studying domestic victims far outnumbered those interested in foreign-born victims. Among some 80+ participants only three were interested in foreign-born trafficked persons, and I was the only scholar studying foreign-born minors. When I attended similar conferences in early 2000s, 99 percent of the presenters focused on cross-border trafficking of foreign nationals.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not suggesting that domestic youth in forced prostitution are not worthy of advocacy, assistance, and research. I see the point made by some law enforcement representatives who underscore notable changes in the discourse on underage individuals engaged in the commercial sex trade. “Where once they may have been profiled by police as juvenile offenders, they are now, thanks to widespread US attention to human trafficking and the passage of federal and state anti-trafficking legislation, provisionally viewed by local and federal law enforcement agents as potential victims of domestic minor sex trafficking, replete with traumatic pasts and turbulent family histories that authorize state intervention.” However, I continue to question whether commercially sexually exploited minors need be subsumed under the human trafficking label or whether it would be actually more beneficial for this population to have its own label and system of advocacy and care. Was the system set up to protect and assist commercially sexually exploited children insufficient? Couldn’t advocates and those working with homeless youth and runaway adolescents lobby the government to increase funding for these populations? Couldn’t awareness campaigns be mounted to educate law enforcement and the public about the plight of the CSEC kids?

Competition for victimhood

As the anthropologist Denise Brennan wrote, “Although abuses within the sex industry—in particular for young people—are horrific and need attention, one kind of abuse and one kind of victimhood should not be privileged over others.” Indeed, the inclusion of domestic minor sex trafficking victims under the label of human trafficking has pitted U.S. citizen children and adolescents in forced prostitutions against foreign-born young people trafficked to the United States. More importantly, the shift to domestic minor sex trafficking in policy, programming, and funding has had an additional adverse effect: it continues to privilege sex trafficking over trafficking for other forms of labor.

“The dominant anti-trafficking discourse (…) is not evidence-based but grounded in the construction of a particular mythology of trafficking.” This mythology maintains that trafficking affects primarily women and girls. Although activism centered around sexual exploitation has been strongly contested and recent empirical research on human trafficking engages with different manifestations of trafficking for labor exploitation, cases involving women and girls continue to receive the lion’s share of media and research attention to the detriment of paying attention to the trafficking of men and boys. It is important to remember that originally the protocol addressing human trafficking was to be entitled “Trafficking in Women and Children,” omitting men entirely. Only later the phrase “especially women and children” was included. The Smuggling Protocol, on the other hand, “has no such coda and no specific emphasis on gender. Smuggled migrants are assumed to be men seeking work elsewhere without proper documentation, while trafficked persons are assumed to be duped victims, usually women.” This gendered distinction is rooted in stereotypes of women as victims and men as less vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. This ideology not only presents a distorted view of women, but also harms men. Trafficked men are invisible and exploitation of men and boys is not readily recognized and thus much more difficult to address.

Despite the emphasis on trafficking for sexual exploitation, the percentage of foreign-born minors trafficked to the United States for sex has been relatively small. Twenty nine percent of the 114 minors who received eligibility letters from the federal Anti-Trafficking in Persons (ATIP) program in FY 2013 were trafficked for sex. In the same year 68 percent were trafficked for labor and an additional three percent for both labor and sexual exploitation. In FY 2012, 25 percent of the 103 minors who received eligibility letters were trafficked for sex. The percentage was slightly higher in previous fiscal years. In FY 2011, it reached 36 percent; in FY 2010 it was 29 percent, and in FY 2009 38 percent. At the same time, 72 percent, 57 percent, 62 percent, and 56 percent of victims under the age of 18 were trafficked for labor exploitation in FY 2012, FY 2011, FY 2010, and FY 2009, respectively. Three, seven, nine, and six percent of minors were trafficked for both labor and sexual exploitation in these respective years.

The ratio of females to males among the trafficked minors has also changed over the years. Up until FY 2012, the majority of trafficked minors were always girls. In FY 2012, girls constituted 39 percent of the population. In FY 2013 the percentage of girls went up slightly, hovering around 42 percent. However, it was not near the 60 percent, or more, that it had been prior to FY 2012. This statistic alone demystifies the assumption that the majority of children trafficked to the United States are girls.

The gendered (as well as raced, classed, and sexualized) discourse on human trafficking stems from the current disconnect “between the broad legal definition that embraces any worker who experienced force, fraud, or coercion, and the narrow latitude of activist and policy discussions that focuses on sex work.” The centrality of women in the trafficking discourse “maintains the gendered divide around which earlier definitions of trafficking settled and thus reinforces the general, dominant image of trafficking as pertinent only to women’s and girls’ lives.” The concept of gendered inequality continues to guide research, “with situations of poor women and girls becoming the main concern of those involved with anti-trafficking work.”

And finally, the gendered dimension of human trafficking relates to broader issues of women and migration. Despite the continued feminization of migration—half of the world’s migrants are women —there remains a “bias that women and girls need constant male or state protection from harm, and therefore must not be allowed to exercise their right to movement or right to earn a living in a manner they choose.” “Some countries (e.g. Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal) have even prohibited women from migration because of the fear that they will end up in trouble.” This bias often conflates migration with trafficking and contributes to the notion that women and girls are the main victims of trafficking. Critics have argued that anti-trafficking measures have been used not necessarily to protect women from exploitation, but to police, punish, and racialize female migrants. The discourse on trafficked children parallels in many ways the discourse on trafficked women and assumes that “migrants can be neatly divided into moral categories such as adult (strong, active, agent) and child (weak, passive, victim), and smuggled (complicit in a crime against the state) and trafficked (victim of a crime against the person).” These binaries are woefully inadequate and harmful as they continue to question who is more deserving victim.

Concluding remarks

A serious examination of the growing trend to label different types of abuses and labor exploitations as “human trafficking” is warranted. Kempadoo has argued that exaggerated reports of trafficking are quite damaging because they divert “attention away from structural, underlying causes that give rise to exploitation, structural violence, and the coercion of (migrant and non-migrant) workers,” children and adults. In my view, extending the label of “trafficking” to encompass many different phenomena and different populations creates competing claims of victimhood and pities one group of exploited people against another. I contend that there is a need for more dialogue between members of the anti-trafficking movement and worker rights advocates, because much of trafficking in persons boils down to exploitation of different types of workers. Existing critiques, particularly evidence-based ones, of the shortcomings of anti-trafficking policies and victim assistance have to be taken onboard in order to go beyond the prostitution panic and reconcile the gender and age divide. The special needs of commercially sexually exploited citizen children and adolescents need to be addressed—and funded—separately from the experiences and needs of foreign-born children and adolescents who have experienced forced labor, domestic servitude, and were forced into the sex industry. Lumping these two populations together is not serving either group well.

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