Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia
The occupant in the Oval Office claims he’s going after gangs kidnapping women and children and selling them into sexual slavery. The irony.
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“Human traffickers and sex traffickers take advantage of the wide-open areas between our ports of entry to smuggle thousands of young girls and women into the United States and to sell them into prostitution and modern-day slavery,” President Trump declared in his State of the Union address last week.
Last night at his rally in El Paso, he again described his vision of human trafficking in graphic detail.
Trump offers disturbing, evidence-free descriptions of kidnapping & sex trafficking.
“You have 3 women tied up in the backseat of a car you’re not going through, folks, a port of entry, where they do look in the backseat at least, right?” pic.twitter.com/Wybb4ArSka
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 12, 2019
Many reporters have noted that this claim is wildly inaccurate. It’s also especially hypocritical coming from Trump. “Human trafficking” is a blurry category that can be defined in numerous ways. But by some definitions, Trump has been involved in various forms of human trafficking throughout his business career.
For Trump, human trafficking means dangerous criminal gangs kidnapping women and children and selling them into sexual servitude and slavery. This sensational view of sex trafficking makes exciting headlines and media narrative. The 2012 film Eden, for example, claimed to be based on a true story about a girl kidnapped as a minor and forced into prostitution by a sex slavery ring. The movie garnered accolades for its brave stand against exploitation—until it was discovered to have been largely fabricated.
So what does human trafficking actually look like? The answer is murky in part because, as numerous sex workers have pointed out, current law deliberately conflates trafficking with consensual sex work. For example, researcher and former sex worker Tara Burns found in 2014 that Alaska’s anti-trafficking laws were used almost entirely against consensual sex workers, who were sometimes charged with trafficking themselves.
Further, in the U.S. “any child under the age of 18 who has been involved in a commercial sex act is considered a trafficking victim,” as the San Francisco Human Rights Commission explains. In her 2016 book Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains, Alexandra Lutnick notes that these underage trafficking victims aren’t usually people kidnapped and forced into slavery. Instead, they’re youth who have been kicked out of their homes, and trade sex for food or shelter.
“I know we have the narrative in the United States of little white girls in the suburbs being plucked off the map by traffickers driving through their neighborhood or something but that’s just not the reality. That’s not what the data says,” Juniper Fitzgerald, an academic and former sex worker, told me.
Lutnick’s research confirms this: She found that only 10 percent of young people who trade sex are forced to do so, and even in those cases, “it is quite rare even in these situations that the young person had no prior relationship with [the person they had sex with].” Lutnick says that based on her research, young people forced into prostitution aren’t kidnapped by strangers, but are forced into prostitution by someone they know, generally an older boyfriend.
These narratives are, of course, not useful for Trump, who does not want to talk about how a stronger safety net could help youth on the street. Instead, as Fitzgerald says, Trump presents trafficking as cross-border sexual slavery in order to play up “the image he’s trying to construct of migrants being sexual predators.”
It is not migrants, though, but Trump himself who has boasted about being a sexual predator. Trump has also been accused of (and bragged about) walking into dressing rooms where teenage girls were changing in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Trump claims he is concerned about the abuse of children, but there is credible evidence that he has sexually harassed minors on numerous occasions.
Trump has also been involved in other endeavors which could be legitimately seen as trafficking. These do not necessarily involve sex trafficking, though.
Sex trafficking accounts for a small percentage of total global human trafficking. A 2017 report from the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 19 percent of trafficking victims worldwide (4.8 million people) are sexually exploited. By contrast, 64 percent (16 million) were exploited for labor in industries like agriculture, domestic service, and construction.
Labor trafficking is enabled by the fact that when people cross borders, they are often extremely vulnerable. As Laura Agustín, author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, told me, “The reason to hire undocumented workers is to be able to pay them less and without responsibility for their health, safety or other workers’ rights.” You can treat undocumented workers poorly, and they have little or no recourse.
In his graphic memoir The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea, for example, Cambodian writer and artist Vannak Anan Prum describes trying to get a job in Thailand. After he crossed the border, he was sold onto a fishing boat, where he was forced to work as a slave to the owner for years. On the boat, men got only three hours of sleep and little food; when men fell overboard, the fishing crew refused to even try to rescue them, and simply let them drown. When Vannak finally escaped to shore in Malaysia, local law enforcement in Thailand jailed him and then sold him to a farmer as a slave.
Labor exploitation involving immigrants occurs in the U.S. as well, and Trump has participated in it. In 1998, he hired 200 undocumented Polish immigrants to demolish a department store on the site of the future Trump Tower. According to David Cay Johnson in The Making of Donald Trump, the men “worked without hard hats. They lacked facemask, even though asbestos… swirled all around them. They didn’t have goggles to protect their eyes.” They were paid $4 or $5 an hour for 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week—at least in theory. In practice, their wages were often not paid. In 1998 Trump had to pay $1.4 million to settle a lawsuit by a union that accused him of using the Polish workers to avoid paying into a pension fund. And over the past few months, as revelations of Trump hiring undocumented workers at his properties in New Jersey and New York, these workers have been systemically fired—and many face deportation.
The Trump Model Management agency was also notorious for mistreating foreign workers, according to a Mother Jones report. In the 2000s the agency would bring in models on travel visas, and then put them to work. Since the models were violating their visas, which did not permit employment in the U.S., they had little leverage over their working conditions. One model, Rachel Blais, says she was put in an “apartment … like a sweatshop,” for which she was charged an exorbitant fee by the Trump agency. “They are the most crooked agency I’ve ever worked for,” she says, “and I’ve worked for quite a few.”
Trump’s involvement in trafficking isn’t the kind that makes dramatic, salacious headlines. Agustín told me that in many cases, “undocumented migrants are glad to get the work and willing to put up with injustice for the opportunity to make money.” The pageant contestants, construction workers, and models in these instances weren’t helpless victims. They were laborers trying their best to make a living and advance themselves despite an abusive boss. Trafficking stories are so focused on perfect victims and nightmare scenarios they make it difficult to focus on the everyday abuse of marginalized people.
That everyday labor abuse is difficult to quantify, but it is pervasive. A 2018 public health report noted that immigrant workers in the United States are concentrated in industries like construction and agriculture which have high rates of injury. The report also points out that the US H-2 Visa structure puts immigrant workers in danger. Since they lose their Visa status if they change employers, they have a huge incentive to stay on the job even under abusive conditions. Ramped up immigration enforcement under Trump has only made the situation worse, as employees fear that they may be reported to ICE if they complain about labor conditions. Bloomberg reports on how working conditions for undocumented blueberry pickers deteriorated in the Trump era; workers weren’t given enough drinking water, had little access to toilets, and were forced to work even when sick or injured.
Trafficking in the U.S. is enabled by our refusal to provide the funding to make housing available to everyone, including youth who find themselves on the streets. It’s enabled by the kind of immigration restrictions Trump champions, which make it hard for immigrants to get documents, and easy to mistreat them. It’s enabled by law enforcement, which targets consensual sex workers rather than focusing on actual criminals. Trump wants us to believe the traffickers are over there, across the border. But the trafficker in chief is sitting in the White House.
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