Benefiting Traffickers with Hard-Line Immigration Policies

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By Amber Moffett, Graduate Associate Director

Trafficking is migration gone terribly wrong.”

– David Feingold

These words given by David Feingold in his piece Trafficking in Numbers: The Social Construction of Human Trafficking Data give a whole new insight into what human trafficking is, what realms human trafficking occurs within, and how human trafficking happens. Indeed, human trafficking and migration are inextricably linked. Human trafficking is heavily influenced by migration. Any policies regarding one have a tremendous effect on the other. This is why it is so vital to examine immigration policies and take into account what impacts they will have in the anti-trafficking sphere, particularly in today’s political climate. With the rise of so many populist candidates within the US and Europe campaigning on nationalist rhetoric and hard-line immigration policies, what will happen in regards to human trafficking?

The True Cost of Cheap Goods

Current hard-line immigration policies so readily found in Western countries are ignoring the root causes of migration. Economic, political, and social conditions are all factors prompting the need for movement in the first place. Human trafficking must be looked at within a broader frame of reference. In order to effectively fight trafficking, we need to look at the deeper, systemic problems that create trafficking – poverty, violence, vulnerability, discrimination, etc. – and make efforts to address these underlying problems as well as the policies that are, in fact, making the problem worse. This must include an honest examination of the demand for cheap labor flooding Western markets, as well as the policies keeping the migrants that are needed to maintain a stable economy from being able to safely enter.

Labor is a major driving force of migration. Studies have indicated that  giving legal status to the vast numbers of irregular migrants that exist within countries such as the US, UK and other Western European countries, could contribute tremendous amounts of money to their local economies. More and more, Western consumers are demanding cheaper and cheaper goods. Therefore, increasing numbers of  manufacturers are needing to resort to ever cheaper labor in order to maintain a profit margin. However, rather than accept this dependence that Western countries have on cheap migrant labor and create policies offering opportunities that would enable migrants to enter the market legally, increasingly restrictive immigration policies have been created in an attempt to keep migrants out.

These conditions – our need for cheap labor and their need to enter the labor market – are now creating opportunities for traffickers to prey on migrants with the need to get in, yet who are prevented access to legal avenues. Until this contradictory environment is properly addressed, human traffickers will continue to profit off the exploitation of those who are simply making the effort to support themselves and their families through opportunities found across borders.

Why the US Has It Wrong

With these push and pull factors in mind, the United States makes a great case study for the effects of hard-line immigration policies. The 80s and 90s saw immigration reforms such as IRCA, Operation Gatekeeper, Operation Rio Grande, and Operation Safeguard, all of which have been shown to be ineffective in preventing unwanted immigration into the country. Rather than preventing migration into the US along the southern border, Operations Gatekeeper, Rio Grande, and Safeguard created more of a “pop-up” effect for immigration, where migrants simply found other routes into the country along less militarized border territory.

Ironically, the above policies actually trap people in the US rather than keep them out, making them more vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking. Many seasonal workers are afraid to return home due to their undocumented status, fearing imprisonment or the inability to return next season. According to a Pew Research study, the vast majority of immigrants actually enter the country legally, and then they merely overstay their visa expiration date. Once this happens, many of them stay in hiding for fear of deportation.

Policies such as these focus enforcement on undocumented workers – those populations in which forced labor thrives. Employers are able to exploit workers because of their undocumented status, then report them should they attempt to organize. (For more information on the cases of WalMart and Tyson, see Jennifer Chacón’s Misery and Myopia: Understanding the Failures of U.S. Efforts to Stop Human Trafficking.) The criminalization of those we actually need in order to keep our labor force in place is rampant in popular rhetoric, particularly under the new administration. Non-citizens are dehumanized and seen as nothing more than criminals and degenerates.


We are continuing to see a tightening of migration policies, resulting in an increase in the cost of migration, which in turn makes migration much more expensive and dangerous. Already highly vulnerable populations are being made more vulnerable due to the growing necessity to entrust their journey to the hands of smugglers and traffickers. For many, these are the only avenues over the border after being denied legal access. Until governments cease to see migrants as a burden, and reverse policies that attempt to keep them on the other side of the fence, trafficking will continue to flourish among these populations. By getting rid of the need for trafficking, the safety of all vulnerable populations can be more easily guaranteed.


For a great post on predictions for anti-trafficking efforts in the US under the Trump administration, read this blog written by Leanne McCallum, Human Trafficking Index Project Manager at the HTC.

Photo by Karn Bulsuk via Flikr


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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