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Silencing Human Trafficking Victims in America

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Women should be able to access victim services, regardless of their immigration status.

Thanks to a wave of anti-immigrant proposals in state legislatures across the nation, fear of deportation and family separation has forced many immigrant women to stay silent rather than report workplace abuse and exploitation to authorities. The courts have weakened some of these laws and the most controversial pieces of Arizona's SB 1070 law have been suspended. Unfortunately, America's anti-immigrant fervor continues to boil.

As a social worker, I've counseled both U.S.-born and foreign-born women who have experienced domestic violence, or have been assaulted by either their employers or the people who brought them to the United States. I'm increasingly alarmed by this harsh immigration enforcement climate because of its psychological impact on families and the new challenge to identify survivors of crime who are now too afraid to come forward.

For the past decade, I've helped nannies, housekeepers, caregivers for the elderly, and other domestic workers in the Washington metropolitan area who have survived human trafficking. A majority of these women report their employers use their immigration status to control and exploit them, issuing warnings such as "if you try to leave, the police will find you and deport you." Even women who come to the United States on legal work visas, including those caring for the children of diplomats or World Bank employees, experience these threats.

Though law enforcement is a key partner in responding to human trafficking, service providers continue to struggle with training authorities to identify trafficking and exploitation in immigrant populations, especially when the trafficking is for labor and not sex. While local human trafficking task forces spend meetings developing outreach plans, our own state governments are undermining these efforts with extremely harsh and indiscriminate crackdowns on immigrants.

Even before Arizona's draconian anti-immigration law went into effect, hundreds of immigrants were arrested and deported without screening that would have identified them as victims. While it's true that victims of crime who are "out of status" or undocumented can access immigration relief in the form of special visas, it will be impossible for service providers and advocates to reach them if their fears of law enforcement are reinforced by "ICE ACCESS" programs. The best known of these is 287(g), which allows local police to enforce federal immigration laws, as well as state legislation like SB 1070.

Approximately five million U.S. citizen children have at least one undocumented parent. A study by the Urban Institute revealed that children are often the real victims of workplace raids -- 80 percent of the children of workers in their study sites were less than ten years old. When families experience long separations from other family members, the report noted the effects can include significant economic hardship, psychological stress, and feelings of abandonment that can lead to sustained mental health problems.

When the American Psychological Association recently recommended overhauling our detention centers and social service networks to better protect children and maintain family units, it acknowledged the widespread psychological trauma caused by immigration enforcement -- including everything from infant developmental delays to dismal academic performance.

Regardless of their legal status, these women are human beings working hard to feed their families. Their home countries' economies have been by shattered by globalization. Our economic system depends on their cheap labor. Yet much of the debate about U.S. borders fails to acknowledge immigrants as people, or appreciate the numerous cultural contributions that ethnic diversity has provided this country. As a result, humane comprehensive immigration reform remains out of reach in Congress.

We're a nation of immigrants and a nation of hard-working families. An economic crisis caused by corporate greed has turned us against each other in desperation and fear. We should band together to uphold our traditional values of family unity, to give law enforcement the tools they need to provide effective victim protection and identification rather than reactionary laws, and ensure that women can access victim services, regardless of immigration status.

Tiffany Williams is the advocacy director for Break The Chain Campaign, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies.

Cross-posted from Other Words.

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