January has been designated by the President as Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Last Wednesday, on National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, my Twitter feed was filled with folks raising awareness about the reality of human trafficking. They were challenging the Church, in particular, to respond both with prayer and action to abolish this horrific practice.
Human trafficking is basically a new name for the very old and sinful practice of slavery. Legally, human trafficking is when people are made—through force, fraud, or coercion—to work against their will so that another can profit. Human trafficking includes both sex trafficking, where the “work” in question is commercial sexual activity, when women, men, or children are prostituted against their will and labor trafficking, where the work individuals are forced to do might be in a restaurant, a factory, in an agricultural setting, or within a household as a domestic worker. Victims of human trafficking are often kept in bondage because they are afraid to report the offenses against them. They are so isolated they do not know how to report their situations or they have been so psychologically marred by abuse, mistreatment, and the shame that results that they think themselves unworthy of rescue.
The Los Angeles Times ran a beautiful story recently about a one-time victim of trafficking named Shyima Hall who was rescued and recently became a U.S. citizen. Hall was sold into slavery by her Egyptian parents for $30 a month when she was just eight years old. She was smuggled into the U.S. and forced to work sixteen-hour-days as a domestic slave for a family in Irvine, California. She was never allowed to go to school and never went to a doctor. Following a tip from a concerned neighbor, Immigration and Customs Enforcement eventually discovered Shyima’s situation, prosecuted those who enslaved her, and assisted Shyima to obtain legal status through special provisions in the law for people in her circumstance.
The Justice Department estimates that there are as many as 17,500 individuals like Shyima who have been trafficked into the U.S. from abroad and many more in slave-like situations who are U.S. citizens. I am very glad that evangelical Christians are now clamoring to be a part of a solution to this nightmare of human trafficking. A decade ago, I don’t think I’d ever even heard the term, and I certainly had never learned in church that there are more individuals enslaved today than there were at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Now, evangelical churches all across the country are clamoring to be a part of the response. Folks attending the Passion Conference earlier this month raised an incredible $3.2 million to fight human trafficking. Groups like International Justice Mission have done a superb job of both informing American evangelicals of the existence and pervasiveness of human trafficking and of combatting it internationally. World Relief, the Salvation Army, and the other Christian groups (in partnership with secular groups like the Polaris Project as well as law enforcement and other government agencies) work to raise awareness and heal the deep wounds of trafficking victims found here in the U.S. An issue that was seldom discussed in churches a short time ago is now something that many Christians are eager to engage.
As the Church focuses attention on stopping the injustice of human trafficking and rescuing and expressing Christ’s loves to its victims, though, I fear that many are missing a critical reality: most victims of labor trafficking, in particular, are undocumented immigrants. A recent Department of Justice report on human trafficking found that 95% of labor trafficking victims were foreign-born, and more than 70% of those were undocumented. It doesn’t make any sense to express compassion for victims of human trafficking if we loathe and scapegoat immigrants who are present unlawfully, because they’re often the very same people. Unless and until a foreign-born victim of trafficking—who was brought against their will across the border or lured in by a trafficker’s false promises—is identified and granted a T visa as trafficking victim, he or she is just an “illegal alien” under the law. Since only a small number of T visas are successfully granted each year (less than 500 total were granted in the first four years that they were available), it’s fair to say that most undocumented victims of trafficking are not being identified and rescued.
Victims of labor trafficking are most likely to disproportionately be undocumented precisely because of the lack of legal status. It is also due to the accompanying fear of reporting violence, threats, and labor abuses, because the victims know that they themselves are also present in violation of law which makes many labor trafficking situations possible. Our dysfunctional legal system, which makes it practically impossible for someone seeking a job in the U.S. to come lawfully, contributes to a situation where desperate individuals believe too-good-to-be-true promises in order to find ways to come to the U.S. Our broken immigration legal system is a trafficker’s best friend.
If we are to be faithful to the biblical call “to proclaim freedom for the captives” (Isaiah 61:1), the Church must be willing to speak out not only against individual traffickers but against the broken system that keeps them in business. We need to vocally support immigration reform that would bring the undocumented out of the shadows—removing their openness to exploitation—as well as secure our borders to ensure that victims are not smuggled into the U.S. unlawfully and fix our legal immigration system such that those seeking work or reunification to family in the U.S. can enter through proper legal channels and not be preyed upon by traffickers. It is right and good to extend compassion to the victims of trafficking and support efforts to rescue them out of enslavement, but our compassion rings hollow if we are not willing to use our democratic rights to seek reform of a system that makes this injustice possible.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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