Decoding Ambiguity: The future of anti-trafficking policy under the Trump administration

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By Leanne McCallum, Human Trafficking Index Project Manager

With less than a week until his inauguration day, President-elect Donald Trump has yet to publicly address human trafficking as a policy issue. As his inauguration day draws near, the question lingers: what will anti-trafficking policy look like under the Trump administration? By decoding Trump’s business’s history related to human trafficking, and his administration’s current policy views on related topics, strong indicators of what his anti-trafficking action could look like are revealed.

Why has Trump kept silent about human trafficking?

Human trafficking is an issue that has historically garnered bipartisan fanfare on the campaign trail. For example this election cycle drew anti-trafficking positions from Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich. Despite this fact, human trafficking is one of the few policy areas about which President-elect Trump has remained uncharacteristically tight-lipped. Some have claimed that he is employing strategic ambiguity on human rights issues in order to avoid further backlash for his views. According to George Hawley, “Donald Trump [is] vague on how he would actually govern as president. He has made many seemingly contradictory statements that can be interpreted in multiple ways.” This strategy has allowed him to maintain plausible deniability about contentious issues, throw off political opponents with misdirections, and sustain backing from supporters by appealing to their various interests. For issues related to human trafficking like immigration, security, and civil rights he has consistently used strategic ambiguity. In the case of human trafficking itself, however, President-elect Trump has simply not addressed the topic at all. This is in spite of the fact that he has talked extensively about issues inextricably linked to human trafficking, and the fact that it is an uncontroversial human rights issue to support – making his silence all the more puzzling.

His quiescence on the issue could be on account of his business’s continuous connection to human trafficking headlines. The Trump Organization has had several labor trafficking and exploitation related scandals, including: numerous lawsuits involving wage garnishing or non-payment of Trump Hotel contractors, accounts of substandard wages and living conditions for construction workers on its Dubai building sites, and accusations of misusing work visas and withholding passports of Trump Model Management models. If these allegations are correct, it would mean that the Trump Organization has committed several forms of labor trafficking as outlined by the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act (2000). This negative publicity is a possible source of his uncharacteristically mum attitude toward a generally favored policy issue. Regardless of whether or not Trump and his businesses did engage in human trafficking or exploitative labor practices, his appointment of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson to Secretary of State confirms that he will encourage a big business, deal-driven mindset in his administration. Trump Organization and Exxon are examples of corporations that have massive labor supply chains and a bottom line of ‘getting the most done for the least amount of money’. This means that they are reliant upon cheap labor, and sometimes inadvertently upon forced labor or exploited labor, in order to achieve the bottom line. This business focus will likely make a direct impact on many of the policy positions the Trump administration will take.

Trump administration on immigration policy

Immigration is inherently connected to human trafficking because of its effect on migratory flows, human smuggling, irregular migration, and vulnerable populations. President-elect Trump has taken a strong position against illegal immigration. His plan to build a wall along the Mexican border and to deport 2-3 million illegal immigrants has been steadfast since his campaign began. Most recently, he has pledged that he will start by deporting criminals, and then will decide in the future what to do with law-abiding aliens. Trump has used the term ‘criminal’ ambiguously, causing concern among immigrant populations. Trump has most recently advocated for a ban on Muslim immigrants (based on country of origin) with the intent of stopping terrorists from entering the US. Trump’s criticism of President Obama’s refugee policy suggest he will limit regular, legal migration for vulnerable populations like refugees. Trump has also stated he wants to limit highly skilled foreign workers from entering the country and taking American jobs. His Attorney General Nominee former Governor Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) has shown a long history of echoing similar sentiments to reduce legal migration pathways, block refugees from resettlement, and to punish illegal immigrants.

Many immigrant rights activists warn that this is a form of discrimination that could force people from unstable countries like Syria to be forced further toward irregular migration. Since many trafficking victims begin as migrants, immigration policy has a direct affect on the avenues through which vulnerable populations migrate. By limiting the access to legal migration while simultaneously punishing illegal immigrants more harshly, Trump’s policies create a closed-door environment. The nexus between human trafficking victims and illegal aliens can make foreign national trafficking victims both victims and criminal simultaneously, leaving these people in an odd position per Mr.Trump’s proposed immigration policy.

Trump administration’s positions on national security and law enforcement

Law enforcement and national security are integral aspects of anti-trafficking efforts, because these agencies are the ‘boots on the ground’ implementing anti-trafficking efforts and framing the way that crime ought to be addressed. President-elect Trump has taken a hardline anti-drug, anti-crime approach to law enforcement.Trump has consistently praised state and local law enforcement for their hard work, and has tasked them with a major role of enforcement for his immigration plans and tough anti-crime policy. He has also expressed support for moving back toward privatized prison systems – a system which some believe is a legalized form of slavery  because it exploits prisoner labor for profit. According to the Generation Freedom campaign, Trump surrogate Sam Clovis told them that, “we have to be able to enforce the laws that we have in this land and also to secure our borders and to control the trafficking that comes across our borders, into our ports, and into our airports.”  His emphasis on security and law enforcement is likely to define his administration’s approach to human trafficking.

Despite his tough talk on crime and justice, Mr.Trump has had scathing critiques of the intelligence community and the security field. His critique of the intel community’s involvement leading to the Iraq War, and more recently their role gathering information on the Russian election hacking scandal, has undermined the credibility of the field. It is unclear whether he will mend the relationship and utilize them, or if he will downsize their role in national security. However, Trump’s Homeland Security Secretary appointee General John F. Kelly could provide strong leadership against human trafficking. Gen. Kelly has disagreed with Trump on several key issues. In regards to the Mexico border wall, Gen. Kelly said during one appointment hearing that “A physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job. It has to be a layered defense,” and he emphasized the need to build partnerships with Latin American countries in order to combat drug and human trafficking. His commitment to border security and to curtailing criminal enterprise indicates that he will be focused on anti-trafficking efforts if given autonomy over his agencies. His role as a keynote speaker at an international anti-trafficking conference in 2014 also suggests he has a personal interest in this issue.

Trump administration on civil rights and human rights

Civil rights are an integral part to preventing human trafficking, because vulnerable populations are the most exploitable at the hands of human traffickers. Since he began his campaign, Mr.Trump has been accused of racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, sexism, islamophobia, and other forms of discrimination throughout his celebrityhood and his campaign. These forms of discrimination are avenues through which perpetrators can further compound a victim’s vulnerability, making them more susceptible to exploitation. By utilizing this language, President-elect Trump has normalized the marginalization of whole identity groups. Most recently, Mr.Trump has followed the republican party’s platform on most civil rights issues. For example, he has made clear that he is interested in appointing a Supreme Court justice who will repeal Roe v. Wade, limiting women’s reproductive health access, and punishing doctors who perform abortions. Jeff Sessions has shown a long history of following a similarly conservative track on human rights. As a senator, Governor Sessions stalled passage of a bill for child sex trafficking victims’ services due to its provisions for abortion, and attempted to add a section about punishing illegal immigrants traveling with families. This specific instance is indicative of the fact that his beliefs about issues like reproductive rights will likely take precedence over anti-trafficking efforts.

However, Mr. Trump has also shown a surprisingly progressive commitment to issues like child care (as outlined in his campaign positions), which would include universal paid maternity leave for moms who have recently given birth. He has also stated that he “is fine” with the Supreme Court ruling to legalize same sex marriage. Whether he will show the same progressiveness in his anti-trafficking efforts, and whether he will support victim-centric measures, is still unclear at this time.

Predictions for anti-trafficking efforts under the Trump administration

Using the cross-section of President-elect Trump’s policy positions on different issues that intersect human trafficking policy, the following outcomes seem most likely under the Trump administration:

The Trump Administration will likely utilize a criminal justice/security approach to anti-trafficking. This means his administration will be focused on prosecution measures over more victim-centric protection and prevention policies. This will likely take a raid-and-rescue model to save victims of trafficking. Combating transnational criminal networks (including human trafficking networks) will almost certainly be a part of the administration’s anti-trafficking efforts. Trump and his appointees have focused extensively on transnational security and crime, thus it is assumable that they will address transnational human trafficking as a subset of this issue. If the Senate confirms Gen. Kelly as the new Homeland Security Secretary this is especially likely because of his previous experience.

The Trump administration’s hardline approach to crime, drugs, and immigration could lead to victims being punished as a result of their conditions of trafficking, AND could lead to more people being vulnerable to trafficking. The administration’s intent to limit legal migration, limit refugee resettlement, and punish illegal immigrants will likely force more people to turn to smugglers or other avenues of migration. This would make people far more vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of traffickers and smugglers. The proposed mass deportations and “law and order” emphasis could also lead to trafficking victims falling through the cracks due to insufficient time and resources to identify victims who are forced into illegal activity. However, this outcome will also depend on local level entities and how they work with victims on the ground.

The Trump administration’s current stance on human rights topics could lead to policies which further marginalize vulnerable populations, thus making them more susceptible to trafficking and exploitation. Mr.Trump and his cabinet picks have taken strong stances against human rights issues related to human trafficking – namely reproductive health rights, LGBTQ rights, and immigration. Additionally, these beliefs could produce a barrier to future anti-trafficking legislation and support for victims of trafficking.

President-elect Trump’s past allegations of exploitation and human trafficking within his businesses, coupled with his current silence on the topic of human trafficking, make it difficult to foresee the policies his administration will take. Though the republican party has traditionally supported anti-trafficking legislation, it remains uncertain how he will address it as president. The fact that he has not yet explicitly mentioned human trafficking implies that it will be a low priority in his administration. Also concerning is the fact that the Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons position will be vacant indefinitely as a result of Trump’s order for all ambassadors appointed by President Obama to leave office by inauguration day. Overall, it seems most likely that either the status quo will be maintained or anti-trafficking efforts will downsize at the federal level.


Photo via Presidential transition of Donald Trump website

*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC


About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.


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