One of the best ways to combat human trafficking is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Local governments are uniquely positioned to address root causes of exploitation and to focus attention on vulnerable communities, including immigrants.
Immigrants have traditionally been vulnerable to trafficking and severe exploitation. Recently, the owner of a construction contracting company in Minneapolis was arrested on charges of labor trafficking that involved exploiting immigrant workers and threatening them with deportation if they complained. The arrest illuminates a problem that too-often goes unseen. According to a news report, the criminal complaint asserts that the company owner:
“… hired about a dozen men, promising them wages, benefits, and, in some cases, housing. However, once they arrived at the job sites, they learned that they were working 10 to 12 hours per day, usually six days a week. They were not paid overtime and were often working as high as six stories above ground without proper safety equipment, according to the complaint.”
The story also relates one of these men’s experience:
“Zavala Lopez worked for Batres for three months. While working, a wall fell on him, severely injuring his back. He was left alone for an hour before it was decided that, instead of going to the doctor, Zavala Lopez would be treated by a massage therapist. The massage aggravated the injury and Zavala Lopez was eventually moved to a hospital. Batres told Zavala Lopez not to report the incident or Batres would report him to immigration. Batres had promised Zavala Lopez money for living expenses while he recuperated, but only gave him $200 a week. Zavala Lopez still struggles with mobility due to his injuries despite 10 months of treatment and physical therapy.”
Today, increased threats of deportation and heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric may cause immigrant communities to become even more vulnerable to exploitation. They are also less likely to seek help when victimized, or to access medical and other services for fear of deportation or other immigration consequences. This problem is especially challenging today as a notice of proposed rulemaking was recently released by the federal government that would use an immigrant’s usage or likely use of government benefits like food stamps, housing assistance, or Medicaid as a reason to deny them a green card or visa.
Many cities and counties are responding with innovative policies and practices to protect immigrants in their communities as well as ensure that immigrant victims of human trafficking and other crimes can access needed services.
Hundreds of cities and counties have implemented laws, ordinances, regulations, resolutions, or other practices that deny cooperation with federal government as a method of protecting undocumented immigrants from deportation. The National Immigration Law Center has produced a toolkit for cities interested in developing policies that will help maintain or build trust between immigrant communities and local law enforcement.
Local policy examples
In 2017 the Travis County jail in Austin, Texas stopped releasing inmates to federal immigration authorities. However, the State of Texas—as well as many other state governments—are fighting cities’ rights to act autonomously. Although the state is currently winning on one legal front, Austin’s City Council recently declared Austin to be a “Freedom City,” passing two resolutions restricting police attempts to question immigrants about status and limiting arrests for nonviolent crimes. Similarly, a City of Minneapolis ordinance facilitates the acquisition of U visas for immigrant victims of crime, protecting them from deportation if they help in the investigation or prosecution of crime.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued an ordinance to stop accepting undocumented immigrants at the city jail, refusing to let city resources be used to support federal family separation and zero tolerance immigration policies. All three Pathways to Freedom Cities, Atlanta, Chicago, and Minneapolis, are part of the Welcoming America Network, which means they are committed to advancing an inclusive community climate that prospers, in part, because everyone – including immigrants and refugees – feels welcome..
Proponents of sanctuary and other inclusive policies argue that cities are made safer when positive relationships exist between undocumented immigrants and law enforcement. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff recently warned immigrants of coming ICE Raids—a move which was both lauded as morally correct as well as criticized as obstructing justice.
Many cities and counties are also working to ensure immigrant residents are not afraid to access services. A City of Chicago campaign educates immigrant residents about their legal rights and how to access services, regardless of immigration status, and the city also established a Legal Protection Fund. New York City provides identification cards and services to all New Yorkers regardless of immigration status, prohibits ICE official from Rikers Island, and recently increased the immigrant legal services budget by more than $16 million.
Encouraging police officers to act as immigration-enforcement agents and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers’ arrests in and around courthouses are having a chilling effect in immigrant communities. Policies and practices that criminalize immigrants push trafficking victims and survivors more deeply into the shadows and hinder law enforcement’s ability to investigate trafficking and other crimes because they won’t get cooperation within those communities if victims fear that their encounters with law enforcement will result in a call to ICE.
While sanctuary policies and efforts to provide city services to all residents regardless of their immigration status are not established specifically with human trafficking in mind, the simple act of doing the right thing is helping ensure immigrant communities are less vulnerable to the crime and more likely to seek help if they are victims.