The Critical Analysis of Human Trafficking Along U.S.-Mexico Border
Human trafficking, also referred to as trafficking in persons, is one of the most heinous and reprehensible crimes that can be committed in the modern world. According to Tiano, Murphy-Aguilar and Bigej, human trafficking is the third largest enterprise in the world; it is surpassed only by the illegal drug and weapons trade. In its worst manifestations, trafficking in persons is akin to slavery. A typical victim of human trafficking is a person who pays a huge sum of money to be illegally smuggled into the United States, but ends up in the thrall of villainous traffickers.
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Both U.S. and international law define human trafficking as encompassing two separate forms of criminal activity, namely forced labor and sexual exploitation. Indeed, most victims of human trafficking are enticed into involuntary labor, prostitution and other forms of servitude against their will. As appalling as it sounds, children and adolescents who have not attained the age of majority also fall prey to traffickers. Projecting these findings onto the case of human trafficking along the American borders, it seems logical to note that the Mexico-United States border is the most vulnerable. Yet, there have been occasional reports of sustained upsurges in human trafficking activities along the Canada-United States border. Similarly, human trafficking poses a perplexing conundrum to customs officers guarding the Cuba-United States maritime boundaries. The present paper will focus mainly on trafficking in persons along the Mexico-United States border, providing economic, legal, and social analysis behind this multibillion-dollar enterprise.
General Background to the Problem
According to the generally accepted definition, “human trafficking is the involuntary transport of men, women and children within and across national borders for purposes of exploitation, extortion, and other kinds of victimization”. It is also necessary to note at the outset that human trafficking should not be mistaken with human smuggling. As Tiano, Murphy-Aguilar and Bigej put it, human trafficking is always coercive and is grounded on deception. Nevertheless, there are some other reasons behind voluntary character underlying human trafficking. In case of Mexico, for instance, human trafficking is rooted in violence, inequality, and extreme poverty. In other words, Mexico is teeming with socioeconomic problems and many people leave their families behind to find a better life in the U.S. Coyotes, a slang term for people who illegally smuggle desperate Mexicans into the U.S., often take advantage of those fleeing adverse socioeconomic situation in Mexico and other impoverished Central American nations. Indeed, Central American refugees often stray over the border with Mexico just to fall into the clutches of human traffickers. In the long run, they all end up in indentured servitude. By the same token, it is not a rarity that bona fide tourists become victims of human trafficking. Although the dimensions of human trafficking remain unclear, it is believed that traffickers smuggle no less than 18,000 people into the U.S. annually .
According to Staudt, Payan and Kruszewski, It is not clear what portion of the estimated 12 million unauthorized persons living in the United States fall victim to human trafficking. Government estimates of human trafficking have varied widely in the last decade, with recent figures far lower than earlier estimates. In 2000, the U.S. government estimated that 45,000 to 50,000 women and children alone were trafficked into the country annually. After 2004, however, government figures dropped to between 14,500 and 17,500. The government attributes the large difference between the 2000 and 2004 estimates to improvement in its methodology for calculating the flow of trafficking victims and not to an actual reduction in the rate of victimization.
However, the methodology used by the government has its quirks. Many cases of human trafficking, especially instances of labor exploitation and indentured servitude, receive little government attention or go unreported altogether. The rationale behind this deplorable negligence is that human trafficking is more commonly associated with sexual slavery rather than other criminal activities. Yet, there is no gainsaying the fact that human trafficking is a multifaceted phenomenon. Oftentimes, victims are abused into submission, both emotionally and physically, through intimidation, starvation, forced drug use, confinement, etc.
Factors that Attend and Contribute to the Problem
Many people do not realize the enormity of the problem when they hear about human trafficking, and it is not surprising. In the age of progressive international organizations and overarching human-rights policies, human trafficking should be a hypothetical problem at best. Yet, the new trends in global economy are in fact also responsible for trafficking in persons. Under the current circumstances, both legal and illegal entrepreneurs can derive substantial benefits from huge flows of goods, services, people and capital across national boundaries. Mercantilist values prevalent in the modern society pressure individuals to attain financial stability. When taken too far, people grow excessively commercial and voyeuristic. Often, people attempt to enrich themselves at the expense of others. As a rule, those who have already been hit by poverty are the ones who suffer from the scourge of human trafficking. In Mexico, approximately 40% of people live in squalid conditions and are, thus, vulnerable to dishonest traffickers. Domestic human trafficking in Mexico is a chronic dilemma for the government, but it is incomparable in scale to cross-border trafficking in persons.
Sustained levels of international migration are also inimical to the resolution of the problem. As a rule, Mexican men migrate to the U.S. more often than Mexican women do. However, there has been an increase in the number of Mexican females willing to reunite with their husbands living currently in the U.S., thereby keeping families intact. Likewise, many Mexican women try to penetrate into the US in response to the changing market demands for labor in the neighboring country. Just like it is commonplace to see people collapsing from hunger in the streets of Mexican towns, it is commonplace for Mexican women bound for the U.S. to bring along their children. Naturally, children and women are among the most vulnerable groups of population, and traffickers willingly take advantage of their weaknesses. Therefore, it is safe to say that new shifts in regional migration also contribute to the flourishing of trafficking along the Mexico-United States border.
Undoubtedly, poverty in Mexico and new tendencies in regional migration are not the only factors that encourage human trafficking. The U.S. is also accountable for the problem. It has focused its efforts on sealing off the border rather than improving interior enforcement. Undoubtedly, it is a good idea to reinforce the cordon sanitaire around the problem area, but its effectiveness is limited. After all, many people do not know that they will be exploited until they cross the border and, thus, cooperate with traffickers. As a result, it is difficult for a customs officer to tell who is a crook and who is not. At the same time, the failure of the authorities to do something about lax enforcement in the U.S. contributes to higher rates of trafficking in persons. On the other side of the border, law enforcement agencies are so lathered with corruption that traffickers can easily bribe or otherwise suborn the policy and continue their venal activities with impunity.
Finally, the advance of the Internet has had an impact on human trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border as well. Sex industry colossi use the Web to disseminate their pornographic contents, thereby reinvigorating demand for the sexual exploitation of females. The Internet has given a powerful fillip to the development of sex tourism in Mexico. There are many websites offering services of Mexican “comfort houses”, a euphemism for brothels. Such facilities are usually located in popular tourist destinations in the vicinity of the Mexico-United States border. Obviously, there are some other factors whose contribution to the high incidence of human trafficking is not as significant, but they are mentioned throughout the paper nevertheless. Below is a point-by-point analysis of the most salient forms of human trafficking.
The woes and grievances that undocumented workers encounter in the U.S. have been cited and repeated so often that they have already taken on the aura of conventional wisdom. There is nothing surprising about this disgraceful state of affairs, for the persistent influx of illegal immigrants contributes to the development of a pestilential environment of abuse and vulnerability. It is a matter of fact that crime flourishes wherever the law does not reign supreme. The inability of the federal government to tackle the illegal alien dilemma perpetuates a baleful environment wherein exploitation runs riot. Apparently, illegal migrants are incapable of overcoming their desperate plight singlehandedly. As a corollary of this, undocumented workers from Central America coming to the US through Mexico become victims of labor exploitation. Illegal immigrants endure unfair treatment because they fear their overlords. Such people are lured with pompous promises of well-paid jobs and decent life, but end up in domestic servitude or at sweatshop factories. Among the most salient factors that contribute to the prevalence of labor exploitation along the U.S.-Mexico border are a lack of access on the part of trafficked people to legal protection, limited language skills, poverty-related debts, etc. Moreover, victims of labor exploitation are often exposed to prolonged ostracism. It is proverbial that they are frequently victimized by traffickers from the same ethnic or national extraction.
It would be wise to mention several cases of labor exploitation that happened in the US over the course of the last few years. For example, in May 2008, a couple from Miami was charged with forcing a 14-year-old girl from Haiti into domestic servitude. The girl worked for 16 hours a day without respite, did not attend school, and was constantly beaten. Sometimes, traffickers let loose their corrupt imagination, coercing their victims into doing various perverted things. Thus, in another case dated of January 2008, Elizabeth Jackson from Tucson, Washington, pled guilty to forced labor. She had virtually enslaved a girl from the Philippines, compelling her to work for 18 hours a day, sleeping on a dog basket and eating mildewed food. Apart from those two instances, the annals of the American legal history bristle with similar labor exploitation issues. On the whole, the fact that labor exploitation continues unabated demonstrates the flawed character of the system of immigration enforcement in the US.
Women of Asian and Latin American origin alike are lured to the shores of the United States by individuals promising well-paid jobs in restaurants, bars, modeling, and domestic services. However, as it often turns out, those promises remain unfulfilled. Women fall victim to human traffickers. As a result, they are exposed to sexual and physical violence as well as suffer extreme emotional exploitation. Traffickers also encroach upon their fundamental human rights, such as the right to dignity and the right to liberty. Human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation has deleterious consequences on both sides of the Mexico-United States border. Thus, according to the most conservative estimates, “Mexico sees 800,000 adults and 20,000 children trafficked for sexual exploitation each year”. Many of these victims are trafficked into the U.S. at one point or another. On the other side of the border, the situation may be even more sorrowful. Due to the high level of impunity for sexual exploitation of illegal immigrants, the exact numbers of victims are hard to tell. Estimates vary widely from one agency to another, but it is believed that no less than 300,000 children become victims of sex trafficking on American soil each year.
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Examples of cases against sex traffickers abound. In August 2008, several American citizens who had a massage parlor were found guilty of running a prostitution ring and recruiting women of Chinese descent. The latter worked seven days a week and were prohibited from leaving the parlor. The defendants were pled guilty to human trafficking and forced to forfeit money gained from their illicit venture. However, sex trafficking schemes are usually perpetrated on a larger basis. Thus, in 2002, the police uncovered a den in San Diego that employed 30 prostitutes. They raided it and found 15 undocumented Mexican women, who were later deported. Yet, as it often happens, women were afraid to testify and the organizers of the trafficking ring were not arrested. Similar patterns of sex trafficking have been observed domestically in Mexico and along its northern border with the United States.
According to Howard Hughes, sex tourism is often thought of as travel which occurs with the prime purpose of having sexual encounter whilst away, usually in a country with greater tolerance of prostitution. Mexico has traditionally been both a perfect breeding ground for sex tourism and an ideal destination for prurient tourists. Sex tourism has the heaviest toll on children. Mexico’s feeble legal system combined with the ready availability of girls beckons men from both the U.S. and Canada. It should be mentioned that for a long time, salacious Americans looked for sex in countries of South East Asia, with Thailand being one of the most attractive destinations. However, after local governments had started adopting tougher stances on sex crimes and organizing crackdowns on illicit prostitution rings, North Americans riveted their attention on Mexico and some other Latin American states for the sexual abuse of children. It is not accidental that the word “children” is used in this context. Indeed, sex tourists arrive in Mexico in droves for the sexual abuse of girls and boys alike. It is practically impossible to tell with pinpoint accuracy the exact figures of tourists coming to Mexico from the U.S. with the purpose of having sex with underage children. Yet, it is believed that roughly 20,000 children are sexually exploited in such Mexican cities as Acapulco, Cancun, Juarez, Tijuana and Tapachula. Even the fact that there is an extradition treaty between Mexico and the U.S.in place does not discourage sex tourists. It is unlikely that things will change in the nearest future because sex tourism is hard to tackle. Meanwhile, traffickers will continue to reap tangible benefits from the suffering of the unfortunate victims.
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Illegal Adoptions and Organ Trafficking
Whereas adolescents and young women are usually trafficked to be engaged in labor and sexual exploitation, children are usually kidnapped for adoption. Undoubtedly, children also become victims of sexual abuse, as it was mentioned above. According to Troubmikoff, the United States is the main destination for “young children kidnapped and trafficked for adoption by childless couples” unwilling to navigate through the dense thickets of bureaucracy to adopt a child in compliance with the legitimate procedures. Sometimes people are so anxious to buy a child that they pay money to trafficking rings in advance. Traffickers organize clandestine meetings in Mexican border cities with potential buyers seeking children. The problem is very pressing and all efforts to address it have been stillborn so far. Although the police uncover child trafficking rings from time to time, the overall statistics remain unfavorable.
Perhaps, organ trafficking is the most gruesome type of human trafficking practiced along the American borders. Indeed, trafficking in human organs along the Mexico-United States border is a complicated issue. However, the magnitude of this problem has not been established because there is a paucity of concrete evidence. Still, it seems logical to assume that the problem is not simply a hoax. In the U.S., where selling organs is prohibited, there are 95,000 people on the waiting list for a kidney. Considering that a kidney can cost as much as $150,000, it is not surprising that organ hawking has become such an alluring market. Human trafficking gangs abduct, seduce, or otherwise catch women just to disembowel them and transport their organs to customers across the border. According to the official statistics, between 1993 and 2009, nearly 600 girls and women were slain in the Mexican city of Juarez, which abuts on the border with the United States. The complicity of trafficking rings that harvest organs and sell them in the murders is evident.
Responses to Human Trafficking
The Washington government has been on the prowl to find an imaginative solution to the long-standing problem of human trafficking for many consecutive years. The biggest problem of the current immigration system is that it punishes immigrants, i.e. hapless victims of human trafficking, instead of those who profit from them. The U.S. needs to switch to internal enforcement rather than focus solely on border control. By the same token, it is imperative that the country should overhaul social security system and ensure that all workers, regardless of their origin, are afforded proper working conditions, equal labor rights, and fair wages. Provided that these critical steps are taken in the nearest future, the whole American society will be better off. Apparently, the U.S. senior leadership understands all this very well, but those actions may be easier said than done. It is incumbent on the Mexican authorities to take all the necessary measures to stem the problem on that side of the border. Overall, a bi-national task force is needed to put an end to trafficking in persons along the Mexico-United States border.
It was not until 2000, when “President Clinton signed into law the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, that the fight against human trafficking in the United States began in earnest”. Later on, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama gave a stamp of approval to the Protect Act. The goal of the act is to extend protection to the victims of human trafficking within the borders of the country. The Protect Act, inter alia, provides law enforcement agents with more flexibility, imposes harsher penalties on American residents involved in sex tourism and other forms of commercial sex with human trafficking victims, and guarantees greater protection to the latter. What is more important, it established President’s Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking and the Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. The two initiatives have been the linchpin of America’s fight against human trafficking ever since.
The United States Department of Homeland Security also plays a critical role in combating human trafficking. In consistence with the provisions of the Protect Act, it pursues the so-called 3P-strategy. Under this strategy, it protects victims, persecutes traffickers, and prevents the exacerbation of the problem. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, hereinafter referred to as CBP, guards almost 12,000 kilometers of land border and 330 ports of entry. Of those 12,000 kilometers 3,145 separate the United States from Mexico. Yet, even those immense resources have not been enough to disrupt human trafficking along the border. Perhaps, CBP and its sister agencies use wrong strategies.
Many people like to saddle the responsibility for the persistently high rates of human trafficking on the Mexican part alone. Indeed, the roots of the problem go to Mexico and its southern neighbors, but it would not be fair to say that anti-trafficking efforts lie dormant in these countries. According to Cawley, Mexico has not been blind to the problem. The country passed its first federal law targeting human trafficking in November 2007, and legislation has since continued to emerge. By 2012, 23 states had laws specifically targeting trafficking and in June 2012, the country passed a new, more comprehensive law to combat the crime. This general law requires compliance from all levels of government, widens the scope of crimes considered human trafficking, establishes prison sentences up to 40 years for related crimes and provides for increased inter-agency coordination, says the ONC.
Mexico’s efforts to stop trafficking in persons have not brought a rich harvest of results because of the chronic corruption and other concomitant problems. However, America’s handling of the problem has not been much better. In March 2013, President Obama reauthorized the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. The move has gained the implacable opposition of many experts because it resulted in the potentially calamitous surge of minors into the U.S.
The present paper has shown that trafficking in persons along the Mexico-United States border is a very nettlesome problem. There are five forms of human trafficking in this region, namely labor exploitation, sex trafficking, sex tourism, illegal adoptions, and organ trafficking. Both males and females can fall into the clutches of traffickers, but girls and women constitute the most vulnerable group. Mexico serves as both a source of and an entrepôt for people for trafficking because of it sordid poverty and noisome corruption. Indeed, the scourge of human trafficking is devastating poverty-ridden societies and Central America is very poor. The promises of decent jobs and better life used by traffickers to lure victims have led to a stampede to the US. The rising rates of trafficking in persons along the border have also been attributed to new tendencies in global economic development and new shifts in regional migration. Both Mexico and the United States have adopted a plethora of bills to combat trafficking in persons. However, many of them are ineffective and need to be relegated to the dust of official pigeonholes. The main problem of the U.S. is that it focuses on border control and disregards internal enforcement, while the Mexican efforts to do anything about the problem have been halted and confused. The latter needs to lance the boil of corruption first to be able to deter human trafficking. Most importantly, the two countries need to marshal every fiber and force at their disposal to resolve the problem. It will take time because there are no painless solutions to such deep-seated issues. Hopefully, the two countries will not remain oblivious to what happens to the hapless victims of human trafficking.