Research Report Understanding the Organization, Operation, and Victimization Process of Labor Trafficking in the United States
Colleen Owens, Meredith Dank, Amy Farrell, Justin Breaux, Isela Banuelos, Rebecca Pfeffer, Ryan Heitsmith, Katie Bright, Jack McDevitt
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Victims of labor trafficking often come to the United States with legal visas, work in restaurants and hotels, and interact with the public while facing ongoing—and often unseen—fraud, violence, and coercion. More than a decade after the passage of the United States’ federal law against human trafficking, we continue to lack systematic information about the characteristics of labor trafficking victimization and how labor trafficking cases are investigated by law enforcement. This study chronicles the experiences of labor trafficking victims from recruitment to United States entry, victimization, and escape, to their efforts to seek justice.

Key findings

  • Characteristics. Most trafficking victims in the study worked in agriculture, domestic service, construction, and hospitality. Victims’ educational backgrounds ranged from very little education to college and graduate degrees. Their traffickers were both foreign nationals and US citizens, and were most often males in their thirties and forties.
  • Recruitment. Victims were usually recruited through their social networks in their home countries, under the hope of opportunity for themselves or their families. Recruiters operated through third- and fourth-party employment agencies, using coercive tactics. Most victims entered the US on lawful visas. Labor trafficking victims often paid a recruitment fee higher than their country of origin’s per capita income.
  • Movement. Victims’ journeys most often originated in Asia and Latin America. Most traveled to the United States on flights, or by car or on foot if crossing the US-Mexico border. Victims frequently obtained legal visas (usually H-2A for agricultural work or H-2B for hospitality, construction, and restaurant work), and experienced routine, uneventful interactions with embassy and border officials. In some cases, officials unknowingly interviewed victims along with their traffickers.
  • Trafficking and exploitation experiences. All victims experienced force, fraud, and coercion, such as document fraud and withholding, extortion, sexual abuse, discrimination, psychological manipulation, torture, attempted murder, and violence and threats against family members. Many were paid less than the minimum wage or less than they were promised, or experienced other forms of civil labor exploitation, such as wage theft and illegal deductions.
  • Escape and outcomes after escape. Victims primarily escaped on their own. But some also escaped with the help of community members, friends, or law enforcement. Nearly 70 percent were unauthorized at the time of escape, and some were arrested or placed in detention centers or in deportation proceedings, most often because of immigration violations. Civil damages and criminal restitution were rarely awarded to labor trafficking survivors. Survivors often suffered psychological disorders, and they tended to remain in the industries in which they had been trafficked.
  • Criminal and civil justice process. Law enforcement agencies did not prioritize labor trafficking cases and often believed they did not have enough evidence to corroborate victim statements. Officers were often reluctant to pursue help victims obtain authorization to legally remain in the United States. In some domestic servitude cases, however, law enforcement played a critical role in helping victims escape and access services. According to the available evidence, less than half of suspected traffickers were arrested. Department of Labor officials were not proactively involved in identifying labor trafficking cases in the study sample and Department of Labor fines were levied against traffickers in only one case.

Key numbers

  • Seventy-one percent of labor trafficking victims entered the United States on lawful visas. Nearly 29 percent of victims entered the United States without authorization, many of whom were smuggled into the United States.
  • Sixty-nine percent of labor trafficking victims were unauthorized by the time they escaped.
  • Labor trafficking victims paid an average of $6,150 in recruitment fees for jobs in the United States.
  • The movement of victims most often originated in Latin America (31 percent), Southeastern Asia (26 percent), and Southern Asia (13 percent).
  • Two-thirds of labor trafficking perpetrators were male, most of whom were in their thirties or forties.
  • Most victims experienced five or more forms of victimization or more, ranging from exploitation to trafficking, which included both criminal and civil violations.
  • Over one-third of victims experienced seven forms of victimization throughout the time they were trafficked.

Policy recommendations

  • Reform guest-worker programs—tying a worker’s immigration status to a specific employer is one of the most powerful forms of control used against labor trafficking victims. Ensure back-wage and overtime regulations are the same for foreign-national and US-citizen workers.
  • Enact state laws to ensure all companies certify a lack of slavery or forced labor in their supply chains and to increase transparency so consumers can identify employers that traffic.
  • Amend state laws to allow victims’ criminal records to be expunged if their crimes were a direct result of being trafficked.
  • Involve US embassy and consulate staff and federal law enforcement in investigating the practices of overseas recruitment agencies used by American companies.
  • Engage an independent agency, in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security, to audit and thoroughly review continued-presence policies and practices for human trafficking to better understand and address reasons for widespread continued-presence declination.
  • Reexamine federal policies surrounding diplomat and foreign-official use of domestic workers and their relative immunity from criminal accountability for labor trafficking.
  • Remove the requirement that trafficking victims cooperate with a law enforcement investigation to obtain a T visa.
  • Designate and train local and federal law enforcement to work with the Department of Labor to proactively investigate labor trafficking.
  • Increase public awareness about labor trafficking through campaigns.
  • Train state and local regulators, US embassy and consulate staff, and border officials to recognize trafficking indicators. Staff should conduct private interviews with visa applicants and provide them with information regarding their rights and numbers to call for help.
Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety Immigration
Tags Victims of crime Federal, state, and local immigration and integration policy
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center