The administration of Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and Kamala D. Harris has the opportunity to spearhead a major turning point in the counter-trafficking in persons (C-TIP) movement at a critical moment in the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the cracks we knew existed in our social safety net, including inequity, racism, weak protections for workers, rampant homelessness and housing insecurity, inequitable access to resources and healthcare, gender-based violence, threats to LGBTQ+ rights, poverty, system-involved youth, and a broken immigration system. Human trafficking lies at the intersection of all of these issues and we cannot address trafficking without reckoning with these problems.
The members of ATEST implore the new administration to adapt the U.S. government C-TIP approach to prioritize prevention and address the root causes of trafficking and forced labor. Big, bold investments of resources in prevention efforts that address trafficking from a human rights-based approach are critical to provide balance and equity with existing investments in prosecutorial activities. Interagency cooperation is essential to prevent people from ever becoming trafficked. If we forget that potential victims, victims, and survivors’ specialized needs are best served by a wide range of federal government agencies, we will not provide sufficient preventative services or ongoing support. When agencies coordinate, they are better equipped to prevent trafficking, serve the needs of victims and help survivors thrive.
While we fight the COVID-19 pandemic through public health responses and help businesses build back, we cannot rebuild our economy on the backs of exploited and trafficked workers. As we rebuild we must ensure that businesses, supply chains and our own government procurement policies ensure fair and safe jobs for all American and global workers. As President-elect Biden promised during the campaign, business needs cannot be prioritized over the general public’s needs and funding should be dramatically increased to social safety nets and human rights-based programs. With the economic instabilities for workers in the aftermath of COVID-19, both are critical in preventing exploitation before it starts. We can be assured that traffickers will be benefitting from increased economic vulnerability and our C-TIP response must prevent trafficking before it starts.
To address the social issues that make people vulnerable to trafficking, efforts should be directed at fixing the social safety net through a C-TIP inclusive lens. Robust anti-trafficking analysis, evaluation and interventions across the range of social service programs will ensure these efforts do not increase vulnerability to trafficking, but rather maximize the effectiveness of such programs.
Just as the United States should integrate a C-TIP lens into all interventions, a race and equity lens should frame these programs as well, as we know that traffickers benefit from racial bias and inequity and although robust data is lacking, we know trafficking likely impacts communities of color at far greater levels than other populations. Therefore, while addressing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must also keep in mind the centuries of racial injustice that have left Black and other communities of color disproportionately vulnerable to traffickers. We must build and fortify institutions so they are less likely to fail the people they intend to help. A C-TIP approach will therefore only be successful with a commitment to racial equity at the forefront. Recognizing the nexus between gender-based violence and harassment and human trafficking is critical. While trafficking in persons can be a form of gender-based violence and harassment, various forms of gender-based violence and harassment can also serve as a driver to human trafficking and/or a method of controlling and manipulating individuals across all forms of trafficking. Comprehensive efforts to reduce human trafficking must include efforts to prevent and respond to gender-based violence and harassment.
Further, when we address the systemic issues that make people vulnerable to trafficking, we cannot forget the effects of climate change that continue to make people vulnerable to exploitation. As we see more climate refugees and scarcity of resources, both in the United States and abroad, more people will become vulnerable to trafficking. Fighting the climate crisis is an essential step to ending human trafficking.
America’s criminal justice and immigration systems require substantial reforms to prioritize the needs of survivors of violence. Indeed, one of the greatest tragedies for trafficking victims is that they continue to be arrested and convicted of crimes their traffickers forced them to commit. Ensuring we treat victims as victims, rather than as perpetrators, and that the criminal justice system works for them on their terms is critical in reformulating the U.S. approach to combating trafficking. A more just system will prevent the criminalization of victims and provide for federal vacatur relief to provide relief to the trafficking survivors our federal system has failed to protect. The new administration should commit to creating more proactive protocols and explicit guidance to ensure all federal law enforcement agencies and their state counterparts do not arrest victims of trafficking forced to commit crimes by their exploiters or put immigrant victims in deportation or removal proceedings. It should work to reform the temporary visa program across categories to remove the opportunities for exploitation inherent in its current form, including banning recruitment fees, increasing transparency and untying visas from employers. And it should ensure that there is a firewall between labor law and immigration enforcement to protect foreign workers who speak out about rights violations. Further, investments should increase for outreach programs that are based in communities and worker empowerment, and collaboration with law enforcement intervention.
To prioritize prevention, funds and efforts should be increased at existing Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Labor programs that strengthen workers’ rights and alleviate vulnerabilities to trafficking locally and globally. Additional funding should support programs in the Departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development that prevent and identify trafficking early and provide safe housing and educational opportunities for all.
The new administration is tasked with repairing our economy during the COVID-19 crisis and reinventing our leadership abroad. A failure to include C-TIP standards in trade negotiations and diplomacy efforts during this process would fail trafficking survivors globally. We should set the standard now that a strong effort to combat human trafficking is essential to doing business with the United States. We should encourage other states to improve, but we also have to clean up our own supply chains to prevent goods tainted with forced labor from entering our country. As such, the new administration should prioritize continued implementation of Executive Order 13627 and the related Federal Acquisition Regulations to set a global standard for ensuring forced labor is not tolerated in this country’s procurement policies. As we re-engage global leaders in diplomacy, foreign assistance and multilateral institutions, the new administration should integrate a C-TIP approach into every intervention and agreement.
The new administration can bring a sense of security to our country by enforcing the rule of law across borders to ensure only goods made by free workers are allowed into and out of the United States through robust enforcement of the Tariff Act’s forced labor importation prohibitions. To prove our leadership, the credibility of the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report must be protected by preventing politically-motivated tier upgrades and basing rankings on proven efforts to combat trafficking rather than false promises.
The Biden-Harris administration has a moral duty to ensure survivors of trafficking are at the forefront of its efforts to rebuild our hollowed out institutions. Only if we remove the conditions in our society that lead to social upheaval and make people vulnerable to exploitation, and listen to those with lived experience and who are the most impacted, can we lead the way in combating trafficking and forced labor.
Over the past 20 years, the United States has focused its C-TIP efforts on criminal enforcement. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) outlined three important goals for the C-TIP movement: prosecution of traffickers so they cannot harm again, protection of victims through services to increase safety and treat trauma, and prevention efforts to alleviate social vulnerabilities to exploitation. The time is now to focus our commitment on prevention and protection efforts.
The members of ATEST urge President-elect Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris to be bold and to cement a unique legacy as the presidency that sets the world on a course to abolish human trafficking once and for all.
This post is adapted from ATEST’s comprehensive recommendations to the Biden-Harris transition team.
The Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST) is a U.S.-based coalition that advocates for solutions to prevent and end all forms of human trafficking and forced labor around the world. ATEST member organizations include: Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST), Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), Free the Slaves, HEAL Trafficking, Human Trafficking Institute, Humanity United Action (HUA), McCain Institute for International Leadership, National Network for Youth (NN4Y), Polaris, Safe Horizon, Solidarity Center, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, United Way Worldwide, Verité and Vital Voices Global Partnership.