This month we celebrate the 155th anniversary of the surrender of Robert E. Lee to General Grant at the Appomattox Court House—marking the effective end of the Civil War. Over half a million Americans lost their lives in the struggle to fulfill our country’s founding principle that all men are created equal. While the human toll is a historical tragedy, their noble sacrifice led to the official prohibition of slavery in the U.S. with the passage of the 13th Amendment.
It is odd to think, therefore, that a century and a half later, slavery would still be around in America. But it is—just in a new form. The barbaric practice of modern-day slavery–—exploitation of people for labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion—most commonly known as human trafficking, is pervasive in our country.
In 2018 alone, the National Human Trafficking Hotline handled 10,949 cases that resulted in the identification of 23,078 human trafficking survivors in the United States—a 25% increase in cases over the course of one year.
Although anyone can become a victim of human trafficking, there are two classes of people in the U.S. who are especially vulnerable: children and illegal immigrants.
Sadly, one in five of all identified trafficking victims is a child, and the connection between children with a history of child welfare involvement and human trafficking is clear. Separation from their nuclear family, coupled with a history of abuse or neglect, creates a complex trauma profile that places foster youth at a greater risk of exploitation.
Once in foster care, many children run away or age out of care lacking a safe or permanent home; in 2018, 17,844 children aged out of care. This often places youth directly into a life of housing instability and homelessness, as 36 percent of youth who age out of care will experience homelessness before the age of 26. An innate desire for love and connection, along with an immediate need for essential resources, allows traffickers to lure youth into a life of exploitation with empty promises of employment, community, or even romantic relationships.
Furthermore, although the majority of trafficking victims in the U.S. are Americans, many foreign nationals also fall into the hands of traffickers. Recent migration/relocation, in fact, was identified as the top risk factor for human trafficking in 2018 by National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Most people who seek to come to America illegally use criminal smuggling networks in Central America and Mexico to facilitate their entrance. However, many of those who initially engage with smugglers willingly become trafficking victims. This is largely due to debt bondage, where the debt that someone took on to pay smugglers is used to coerce them into labor or sexual exploitation. Payment in full, for those who can afford it, is not a much better alternative since the smugglers then no longer have an incentive to guarantee safe passage.
Even if these migrants make it safely to the U.S., they can become trafficking victims once they are here. MS-13 gangs in the U.S., for example, are notorious for preying on newly arrived underage girls and coercing them into commercial sex under the threat of violence to them or their families back home.
It’s difficult for these foreign nationals to seek the help they need since, besides the threat of retaliation by their captor, they may fear the legal consequences they can face for the criminal activity they were coerced into (such as prostitution) or their lack of legal status.
We must once again fight a war on slavery. Fortunately, the sacrifices required this time are minimal compared to the Civil War.
Prioritizing alternatives to foster care, such as prevention, collaborative community services, and family-centered rehabilitation, can reduce the probability for the victimization of children by means of a system that is intended to protect.
Securing the southern border, hardening the asylum system against abuse, and banning sanctuary policies are all practical ways to reduce the number of foreign nationals who become trafficking victims.
Taking these pragmatic steps to protect these vulnerable communities from exploitation will help ensure that we end slavery in America once and for all.