There’s no way to stop human trafficking by treating it as an immigration enforcement problem

Robert Kraft, the New England Patriots’ billionaire owner, recently made headlines when he was charged with two counts of soliciting prostitution. The women involved were undocumented Chinese immigrants who were human trafficking victims at the Orchids of Asia spa in Jupiter, Florida.

Raids and sting operations like this one, which ensnared about 100 other far less prominent alleged perpetrators and a few other very rich men, have become commonplace across the U.S. and the world. They highlight the ongoing exploitation faced by large numbers of vulnerable people.

While conducting research about human trafficking in Thailand and Cambodia, I’ve observed that grassroots nonprofits are often effective in addressing its root causes.

Good models

While no one knows how big the problem is, human trafficking is getting more attention today. This higher profile has given rise to what the criminology researchers Sanja Milivojevic and Sharon Pickering call a “global trafficking complex,” which they describe as a “tangled web of agendas, priorities, policies and ideological underpinnings.”

In turn, cases like Somaly Mam, a Cambodian woman who was praised by celebrities before resigning from her organization in scandal, show that some exaggerate the scale of human trafficking and misrepresent it to the public for their own financial gain. Fighting human trafficking has become a high-stakes endeavor across the world, with a dozen countries spending more than US$1.2 billion on anti-trafficking efforts between 2003 and 2012.

But many grassroots nonprofits witness this exploitation firsthand with the people they serve directly and do make a difference.

One excellent nonprofit model is the Coalition of Imokalee Workers, a Florida human rights organization that fights for decent farm worker compensation. Its anti-trafficking and advocacy work has led to effective and much-needed preventive measures. Most notably, the group has collaboratively developed a Fair Food program to ensure that corporations, farm owners and businesses pay farm workers adequately and treat them more ethically.

Another exemplary model is the Anti Human Trafficking and Anti Child Abuse Center in Thailand. The nonprofit aids children who have been sexually and physically abused and trafficked, many of whom are from Burma, Laos and Cambodia.

Realizing that the issue of child exploitation coincides with issues of poverty and vulnerability, the organization also helps law enforcement authorities stage sting operations to hold perpetrators accountable. They also participate in joint task forces together with local, national and international leaders to address the root causes of trafficking.

Immigration policies

Here in the U.S., the Trump administration’s efforts to slow the pace of immigration are making conditions more precarious for undocumented workers and causing an uptick in human trafficking. As migrants lose rights and protections, they tend to become more vulnerable to exploitation, not less.

This is not unique, however. Many other countries, including Thailand, are using trafficking as a rationale for more restrictive immigration policies. Their leaders often try to achieve political ends by demonizing migrants forced to do work they do not wish to do.