New York Post, January 10, 2023
Wednesday is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, an occasion designed to draw attention to the presence of trafficking in our midst and the toll it takes on the victims. This year, for its most prominent anti-trafficking initiative, the Biden administration is urging the public to mark the day by wearing blue and sharing selfies on social media.
The Biden border policies, meanwhile, have literally been contributing to the human-trafficking problem every single day since Jan. 20, 2021, when the president began dismantling immigration enforcement, resulting in the mass-migration crisis that continues today.
Trafficking is the exploitation or enslavement of someone by force, fraud or coercion, for labor, domestic servitude or commercial sex. Law-enforcement agencies report that incidents have spiked in the last two years, among an astounding 2.2 million migrants apprehended in fiscal year 2022.
Overwhelmed border agents are told to catch and release huge groups of illegal migrants, processing them swiftly, preventing officers from doing proper vetting of those apprehended — and often missing the opportunity to detect trafficking. The migrants are deposited on the streets of cities and towns in border states or transported to destinations around the country, where they are often isolated and vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking.
State and local agencies end up having to cope. One Texas sheriff in a county along the smuggling routes told a recent conference of officials working to combat trafficking that before 2021, his deputies encountered one or two cases of trafficking a year. Last year, they dealt with 77 cases.
In other horrific scenarios, smugglers persuade parents to hand over their children in pursuit of a “better life,” taking advantage of policies that virtually guarantee the release of the unaccompanied minor to a sponsor in the United States. In 2022, nearly 130,000 such minors were released to a sponsor, a new record.
Under President Joe Biden, the priority is to move the minors out of government custody as quickly as possible, rather than conduct meaningful inquiry into the child’s situation or ensure the minor is placed in an appropriate and safe household. Background checks and home visits rarely take place. Instead, contractors attempt to do a well-check by phone, not a particularly effective way to ascertain if the child is being trafficked — and about one-fifth of sponsors don’t respond to the phone call, according to statistics officials gave Congress.
These policies create an irresistible opportunity for labor and sex trafficking to occur. The traffickers promise naïve migrants jobs in the United States and instead lure them into indentured servitude, peonage, sex trafficking, extortion or demand they work for the smugglers to pay off their debts to the traffickers.
Some traffickers prey on minors staying in the crowded, lightly supervised shelters where they cluster after crossing illegally. Other kids fall in with gangs after reaching their destination and are sexually assaulted and pimped out for profit. A Reuters report last month exposed that several Hyundai-Kia auto-parts factories in Alabama had hired dozens of Central American minors who had crossed the border illegally.
The policies that govern the placement of minors who arrive unaccompanied are inadequate to prevent them from being placed in inappropriate environments that include labor and sex-trafficking situations and participation in or exposure to criminal gangs. These policies have always been inadequate, in part due to the unmanageable volume of cases, but have been relaxed even more by the Biden administration, increasing opportunity for bad actors to exploit the system. Swift release has been prioritized over the vetting of sponsors.
The loose regulation of guest-worker programs, especially the H-2A and H-2B programs, also contributes to trafficking. The H-2A visa is available for farm workers, and the H-2B visa is available to employers for seasonal unskilled non-farm labor. As one study put it, conditions that create vulnerability for trafficking victimization are “built into” the temporary-work-visa programs. Under Biden, the worksite audits and raids that used to catch some of these trafficking situations have been abandoned.
We can and must do better. Every trafficking victim represents a failure in border security and often a failure in government policies. Congress and the president have many options to prevent, deter and detect human trafficking. Start with securing the border, give more attention to worksite enforcement, and end the automatic release of minors into this country, instead emphasizing swift return to their home countries.