Urban Wire How law enforcement can work with partners to help fight labor trafficking
Colleen Owens, Derek Marsh
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This post was originally published on the Official Blog of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

What does human trafficking look like in your community and what are you doing to combat it? Who are your partners in identifying suspects and providing services to victims?

President Obama’s Proclamation of January as “National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month” is a call to action for law enforcement to dedicate themselves to combatting human trafficking. It has been 150 years since the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but it still exists in the United States and no community is immune to it. Human trafficking is modern day slavery, resulting in the exploitation and abuse of an individual for commercial gain.

We have come a long way in the fight against human trafficking; however, we still have work to do—especially with respect to labor trafficking. Much has been published about identifying sex trafficking, which makes up 82 percent of all federally funded task force investigations but there is more to be done in the area of labor trafficking. A 2014 Urban Institute/ Northeastern University report describes labor trafficking in the United States within five main industries: domestic work, agriculture, hospitality, restaurants, and construction.The report found that 71 percent of labor trafficking victims entered the United States lawfully with a visa for jobs they were recruited for and were subsequently trafficked in. However, by the time these victims escaped, 69 percent were unauthorized to remain in the United States.

The typical labor trafficking case in the study involved an individual meeting with a recruitment agency operating abroad on behalf of US employers. The recruitment agency engaged in high levels of fraud and coercion, misrepresenting the job and benefits, and demanding recruitment fees. On average, victims paid over $6,000 in fees (more than the average per capita income in the top six countries of origin). To afford these fees, they often mortgaged family property or took out high interest rate loans. Interviews at embassies or with border control did not identify any early red flags.

Once in the United States, workers were degraded and dehumanized, forced to work for little or no pay, and had their documents seized and movement to and from work controlled. Victims faced extortion, psychological coercion, and manipulation, were deprived of food and medical care, and were forced to live in substandard and inhumane conditions, experiencing sexual abuse, rape, attempted murder, violence, and threats against themselves and family members, if they tried to leave.

For workers in the United States on a work visa, if they left their employer, they would become unauthorized to remain in the country. Employers used this fact to threaten them with arrest or deportation if they complained or tried to leave.

The majority of survivors interviewed for the Urban Institute/Northeastern University report knew they were victimized, but blamed themselves. Nearly all lacked knowledge they were being trafficked and that they had rights and protections under US law, regardless of immigration status. Only 7 percent self-reported to police and 14 percent were arrested, most commonly for immigration violations rather than being identified as victims of a crime. The majority escaped on their own and lived several months or years before being properly identified.

In this study, neither law enforcement nor the US Department of Labor (DOL) were involved in proactively identifying labor trafficking. There was no evidence of arrest for more than half of all traffickers identified, and victims were rarely awarded civil damages or criminal restitution.

So where can you begin to uncover labor trafficking in your jurisdiction? Start by identifying partners using the “Barrier Model.” There are five core barriers that “must be overcome in order to commit” human trafficking of foreign nationals:

  • Identity paperwork (creation and control) is needed for job recruiting and placement. Agencies involved with checking and confirming identity documentation are important partners, including Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), all levels of law enforcement, DOL, health care agencies, and immigration attorneys.
  • Border entry is required for foreign national victims to be victimized in the United States. Agencies participating in border crossing are important partners, including border patrol, travel agencies, transportation agencies (i.e., airlines, bus & coach services), the Coast Guard, port authorities, and the Transportation Security Administration.
  • Working against his/her will is a component of labor trafficking. Agencies responsible for finding jobs, placing workers, employing and providing employment, and overseeing business performance are critical partners. These agencies include local code enforcement, DOL, HSI, and product or work location regulatory agencies and inspectors.
  • Housing is required while victims are being compelled to work. Agencies responsible for the inspection and oversight of residential and commercial complexes, and their occupants, can be beneficial partners. Consider Housing and Urban Development (including local housing authorities), local code enforcement, building inspectors, fire departments (occupancy and fire hazard issues), Alcohol & Beverage Control, parole and probation officers, home owner and landlord associations, and medical outreach organizations.
  • Financial Flows (cash and credit) are created by employers of labor trafficking victims. Agencies and organizations involved with tracking business and personal funds include the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the US Treasury, US Marshals, gaming commissions, mortgage/escrow companies, banks, and state tax agencies.

Focusing on these five barriers may provide opportunities for you and your partners to identify labor trafficking and victims who otherwise might remain undetected. Additionally, consider local community groups, businesses, and faith-based organizations as having insight and/or access to victims. Building the best integrated, multi-disciplinary team is critical for successful labor trafficking investigations, prosecutions, and victim recovery.

The IACP, with the support of the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), Office of Justice Programs, US Department of Justice, and in partnership with Urban Institute and AEquitas, has launched the Enhancing Law Enforcement Human Trafficking Task Force Operations project which will provide law enforcement-related training and technical assistance (TTA) to the BJA/Office for Victims of Crime(OVC)-funded human trafficking task forces. The TTA project will focus on sex and labor trafficking and aims to close the gap in the identification, reporting, and enforcement of human trafficking laws.

Derek Marsh is a labor trafficking fellow with the Bureau of Justice Assistance, US Department of Justice.

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Human trafficking Policing and community safety
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center
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