This is a mutually beneficial alliance. The flow of hundreds of millions of dollars in the United States to organisations fighting ‘modern-day slavery’ has played a major role in drawing attention away from government policies on immigration, free trade, employment, the environment, and public welfare. Talking about ‘traffickers’ and ‘smugglers’ is not only an effective way of closing down other conversations, it also enables nation-states who would otherwise be defined by their anti-migrant, anti-environment, anti-women, anti-worker, and anti-poor policies to be viewed as the saviours and protectors of ‘victims of trafficking’.
This is no small benefit to nation-states. Look again at the Trump administration’s support and funding for anti-trafficking measures, which has been a hallmark of this administration. Since taking office, Trump has had a full-time appointee overseeing anti-trafficking initiatives and signed three executive orders and eight bills expressly targeting human trafficking. Trump has presented this as “fighting for the voiceless”.
Yet “the voiceless” to which Trump refers clearly does not include anyone affected by Trump’s immigration policies, including those harmed by the effective ending of lawful routes of migration to the United States, the implementation of a ‘Muslim ban’ (which reintroduces racism into US immigration law), the interdiction of asylum seekers at the US’s southern border, and the organised abandonment of would-be refugees in hazardous, make-shift camps in Mexico. Most egregiously, Trump’s concern for the most vulnerable does not extend to the separation of children from their caregiving adults as part of his administration’s “zero tolerance” policy – an especially vicious tactic to try and thwart future migration to the United States.
The voices of the people harmed by Trump’s anti-immigrant policies have not been prioritised by anti-trafficking activists either. It is no accident that most anti-trafficking organisations have failed to speak out against each and every one of Trump’s anti-immigration policies. On the contrary, many have stood beside Trump and his daughter Ivanka and applauded their anti-trafficking initiatives. Marking one such occasion, the twentieth anniversary of the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act on 31 January 2020, Trump commented that his policies were a response to a “level of evil that you would never believe is even possible in a modern age. The level of evil is incredible.” The evil he was referring to was definitely not his administration’s continuing failure to reunite over 600 hundred children whom they separated from their parents.
Anti-trafficking or anti-immigrant?
There is further evidence of this symbiotic relationship between the anti-trafficking and anti-immigrant agendas. Notably, recent policies aimed at virtually eliminating asylum in the US have been reframed as humanitarian measures to “reduce illegal trafficking and human trafficking, as well as forced migration”. This is how Trump described his 2019 signing of a “bilateral cooperation agreement on security and migration” with El Salvador, as well as others signed with Honduras, and Guatemala. These agreements ensure that anyone seeking refuge in the US who has traversed these refugee producing states would no longer have the right to do so.
The strategic appeal of ‘combatting trafficking’ goes well beyond the United States. El Salvador’s foreign minister, Alexandra Hill, justified their participation in the bilateral agreement by invoking the recent deaths of a father and daughter from El Salvador who drowned in June 2019 in the Rio Grande. Claiming that their deaths “hit El Salvador in the heart”, Hill said the agreement would help El Salvador “avoid” such deaths. Yet this humanitarian rhetoric provides political cover for El Salvador’s endorsement of Trump’s efforts to further close routes of migration to the US, thereby increasing the danger to those who try.