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Back to Archives | Back to December 2003 Contents 

Collaborations: The Key to Combating Human Trafficking

Joy M. Braun, Program Specialist, Florida Freedom Partnership, Coral Gables, Florida

Human trafficking is modern-day slavery. As many as 20,000 persons are trafficked into the United States annually to be forced to work in slave-like conditions or to be sexually exploited, according to the State Department's 2003 report on trafficking in persons. These numbers are only estimates, since human trafficking is a hidden injustice that often occurs behind the closed doors of private homes or under the facade of legitimate businesses. Crime rings are savvy in the methods of smuggling persons across borders and hiding victims of trafficking as they move them between cities. People seeking a better life in the United States quickly believe the lies of the traffickers, only to find later that they have been lied to, forced to comply, or tricked about the reality of the situation in which they would find themselves. Victims of human trafficking need assistance and benefits, and their traffickers must be brought to justice. No one agency can combat human trafficking; collaborations are the key.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), Pub. L. 106-386, which became public law on October 28, 2000, is threefold in function. Its purpose is to prevent human trafficking, to protect victims of human trafficking, and to prosecute traffickers. The law defines severe forms of trafficking in persons as the following:
Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion or in which the person induced to perform such an act is under 18 years of age; or the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

The TVPA allows Congress to appropriate funding for the three-tiered approach to combating human trafficking. The first objective of the legislation, to prevent human trafficking, will briefly be covered in this article, but since the focus of prevention is in other countries, the topic is not as relevant in the United States as the two other aims of the law, protection, and prosecution.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of State focus on preventing human trafficking in countries that are known as sending countries or countries of origin, as they are the home countries of many victims of trafficking. Such countries are often poverty stricken, such as Thailand, or are in a state of civil unrest, such as Colombia. The State Department may work with the federal government of the countries mentioned above to develop antitrafficking legislation. USAID funds microlending projects, skills training classes, and other programs overseas to assist in preventing human trafficking.   

The T Visa
The second and third objectives of the TVPA, to protect victims of trafficking and to prosecute traffickers, are largely linked to each other. First, immigration remedies were created or altered to include victims of trafficking as potential recipients. For example, the T visa was created to be a source of immigration relief for victims of severe forms of human trafficking, and victims of trafficking were included as a category of possible beneficiaries of continued presence, a temporary status. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also created a certification process for victims of human trafficking so that they would be able to access federal and state benefits and programs, similar to refugees.

Victims of human trafficking are usually undocumented in the United States and are therefore vulnerable to deportation. While a criminal case is developing against the victim's trafficker or traffickers, he or she may be granted continued presence in order to legally remain in the United States for the time deemed necessary to assist with the legal prosecution. However, continued presence is only a temporary status and does not lead to permanent residency. Fortunately, continued presence is usually granted fairly quickly and allows an individual to obtain an employment authorization document, which is required for most immigrants who wish to work in the United States. Without continued presence, a victim of trafficking may be forced to return to his or her country of origin and be vulnerable to threats and abuse by the traffickers or to recidivism. The human rights violation of trafficking occurred on U.S. soil, and to send a victim of trafficking back to perhaps the same situation that allowed him or her to be trafficked would not be socially or ethically responsible and may be a step backward in the fight against human trafficking.

The T visa was created as a response to the need for victims of a severe form of human trafficking to have a long-term solution for their immigration dilemma. Five thousand T visas are available annually for victims of a severe form of trafficking, and after three years of holding a T visa a person can apply for permanent resident status in the United States. With a T visa, he or she can file for immediate family members to join them legally in the United States. The T visa also offers work authorization. It is important to note that at the date of publication, no other country in the world offers a victim of trafficking the option of later becoming a legal permanent resident in the country to which he or she was trafficked.

The Department of Health and Human Services
The Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) certifies victims of a severe form of trafficking by giving them a certification letter, which allows them to apply for federal and state benefits and programs to the extent of a refugee. This means that a victim of trafficking may receive food stamps, Medicaid, and cash assistance or may be deemed eligible for early employment and cash assistance programs, such as ORR's Matching Grant Program. Such benefits can offer a victim of trafficking a fresh start and support from a case manager, someone who takes interest in the person and works with him or her to achieve such goals as legal employment and appropriate and safe housing.

The Office of Victims of Crime
The weeks and months prior to being officially certified as a victim of trafficking can be a stressful, confusing, and scary period for a victim, as he or she is not eligible for the majority of federal and state programs due to lack of an immigration status. The Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) made funds available for antitrafficking programs throughout the United States to serve precertified victims of trafficking. The objectives of the antitrafficking programs that OVC financially supports are aligned with the three-tiered purpose of the TVPA: to prevent, protect, and prosecute. Such programs offer a variety of the following services to precertified victims of human trafficking: case management, legal assistance, clinical intervention, housing, and medical care. They may also provide transportation, emergency financial assistance, literacy classes, English assecond language classes, and employment services. The programs support victims of trafficking, as they most likely recently left a traumatic situation, and they prepare victims of trafficking for the certification phase, when they will be able to access public benefits and strive to reach self-sufficiency.

Victims' Cooperation with Law Enforcement
The ability of a victim of a severe form of human trafficking to receive federal assistance, be it immigration assistance or benefits, is largely dependent upon the victim's willingness to cooperate with law enforcement. In order for a victims of a severe form of trafficking to be eligible for a T visa, the regulations state that one requirement is that a victim over 15 years of age must prove that he or she is complying with law enforcement or has assisted with the investigation or prosecution of his or her traffickers in order to be eligible for a T visa. The victim of trafficking certification process mandates a similar requirement.

The challenge is then to get victims of trafficking to cooperate with law enforcement so the victim may become certified, can access benefits, and can have immigration options. Only 450 victims of human trafficking have received assistance from the U.S. government since the TVPA was passed in 2000, and those numbers barely scratch the surface of assisting victims of trafficking, since up to 20,000 are estimated to enter the United States every year. The first step toward getting victims of human trafficking the assistance and services they need is for law enforcement to recognize them as victims of human trafficking.

However, as already noted, many victims of trafficking are undocumented, and they know that they are susceptible to deportation. In addition, their traffickers may have threatened them, saying that they would be imprisoned or deported if law enforcement found out about them, or they may be from a country where law enforcement is corrupt and collaborates with traffickers. Whatever the situation may be, victims of trafficking may be afraid of law enforcement, or law enforcement may mistake a trafficking case for a straight prostitution case. This is where the crucial relationship between service providers and law enforcement comes into play.

Cooperation among Agencies
It is important that relationships between agencies be developed before a trafficking victim needs assistance. Both parties, law enforcement agencies and service providers, need to respect and trust each other as organizations and also as partners in combating human trafficking. No one agency can efficiently or effectively fight the great problem of human trafficking alone. The U.S. government is a perfect example of the need to work together to combat human trafficking; the government has given specific tasks to different departments, including the Department of State, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Law enforcement and service providers have a great deal to teach each other about human trafficking. Law enforcement could learn about human trafficking from service providers who have been working with victims of human trafficking for several years, and officers could then train each other about the TVPA and working with victims of trafficking. Not only police officers on the streets but everyone employed by the law enforcement agency should learn to identify a victim of human trafficking, as a victim may not be identified at an arrest but perhaps while in jail or being fingerprinted. Police officers can offer their expertise about safety to service providers and train them to protect themselves, their offices, and the victims from traffickers seeking revenge. They can teach service providers about their local law enforcement agency and inform service providers of what is required of a victim of trafficking for an investigation and prosecution.

Unfortunately some local and even federal law enforcement agents are not aware of the objectives of the TVPA, and some officers may not even know that the TVPA exists to combat human trafficking. In order to help the tens of thousands of victims of trafficking that enter the United States annually, law enforcement, service providers, and the community must be knowledgeable about human trafficking, its existence, how to help victims, and how to bring the traffickers to justice. If law enforcement officers are not knowledgeable about human trafficking, victims of trafficking will not be identified as such; they will never receive the services available; and the traffickers will not receive justice. Therefore, it is crucial that all local and federal law enforcement agents receive training regarding human trafficking.

Having the truth revealed about a trafficking victim's situation can be a long process. When local law enforcement does not have the time or manpower to gain a victim's trust and to find out the truth about the trafficking situation, they can enlist the assistance of service providers. Service providers can assist in working with the victim to make a statement or to prepare the victim to be a better witness. Mental health advocates can help victims work through their trauma so they can move forward with their lives. Service providers can also assist a victim with time-consuming tasks such as finding housing, obtaining health care, accessing mental health services, and applying for federal and state benefits, leaving law enforcement time to focus on the prosecution of the case.

Law enforcement officers and service providers must work together to fight human trafficking. In order to delegate tasks and to clearly define each agency's role, relationships should be fostered before the two agencies ever work together to serve a victim of trafficking. No one agency can prevent human trafficking, protect victims of human trafficking, and prosecute traffickers alone; collaborations between law enforcement and service providers are the key to combating human trafficking. ♦

Please cite as:

Joy M. Braun, "Collaborations: The Key to Combating Human Trafficking," The Police Chief 70 (December 2003): 68–74.



From The Police Chief, vol. 70, no. 12, December 2003. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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