Anti-Immigrant Policies: A Bar to Stopping Child and Migrant Labor Exploitation
Over 2023, we saw a number of news stories covering child labor exploitation, particularly documenting how many noncitizens fall victim to labor exploitation and trafficking. While the awareness of these issues is crucial, child and migrant labor exploitation have been occurring far longer.
In our 40 years of experience in the Upper Midwest, including more than a decade of work on labor trafficking issues and legal services for children, The Advocates have seen the myriad challenges to responses and protection for exploitation and trafficking, as well as many opportunities.
First and foremost, anti-immigrant rhetoric and deportation-focused enforcement keep children and trusted adults from speaking out, afraid they will lose their only means of support or face return to serious harms. (A cynical view would suggest that the result - a workforce of people afraid to speak out against workplace abuses - is no accident). In too many cases, including those the media has recently covered, victims lack trust or viable solutions if they come forward, stymying efforts to end abuses. Poorly handled cases can result in children being separated from their families, losing basic incomes without adequate safety nets or access to services, and facing deportation. This reality, combined with anti-immigrant efforts and rhetoric at the highest levels, has earned distrust amongst those most in need of help.
Even if private auditors or investigators were not plagued by the myriad issues the media have highlighted, an enforcement-only approach often punishes the victims, and fails to address causes of and vulnerabilities to trafficking. To its credit, Congress has time and again voted to reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. But today, many in Congress are pushing for strict bars to asylum with ramped-up enforcement and detention efforts, exposing children to exploitation that they are often too fearful to report or escape. Responses to exploitation and trafficking alone will never succeed unless they address vulnerabilities that drive people into exploitative situations and ensure robust, victim-centered and trauma-informed protections throughout the response.
If the U.S. is serious about ending exploitation and trafficking, it will pass meaningful immigration reform with safe and accessible options for migration, rather than doubling down on ways to keep people out of the country. It will redouble efforts to protect whistleblowers, victims, and witnesses. Few of us would risk loss of income, separation from family, and deportation to hold their employer accountable. Victims who are identified must be assured of adequate protection against deportation and destitution. Most importantly, however, they must have access to adequate protections and systems before they become victims.