I am not a slave. I am not a trafficking “survivor” or a victim. I’m among the most marginalized and dehumanized persons in our society – I’m a criminal.
When I was caught crossing the border in Arizona at five years old, the border patrol officer questioned me and acted friendly in order to convict my smuggler. I lived with the guilt that this man was abused and imprisoned because I ratted him out. And what was the reward for my snitching? They put me in a jail cell, fingerprinted me and photographed me like a criminal. This is how the state treats border crossers, even if they are children. I have DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status now because I came through “no fault of my own.” People with DACA crossed the border when they were fifteen years old or younger. We are considered “victims” to the extent that we fit the definition of “human trafficking” and made to cross a border when were underage. But we are still “illegals” and denied legality. Because of this human trafficking framework, somebody has to be a criminal, somebody has to be the “trafficker” and those people are my parents. The UN Trafficking in Persons protocols defines human trafficking, and they mandate that “traffickers” lose parental rights and property (our homes). From the time I was five years old, I knew that fitting with the human trafficking framework would mean destroying someone’s life and throwing my parents under the bus. Growing up I worked hard to prove that I wasn’t going to be a “moocher”, or a “criminal” and to prove that I was worthy of living in the US and having rights. I wanted to “earn” my rights, even if it was unfair. I’ve lived in New York for twenty years and I’ve accepted that I will never become “legal.” I cannot continue to live my life trying to prove myself and submit to people who have power and rights to decide my place in the world. After more than a decade of trying to be pure and innocent, it feels good to give myself permission to be flawed, “sinful”, and to be human. I’m a criminal, I’m a sex worker, and I’m undocumented. I never felt freer than when I decided the words and rights withheld didn’t mean that I was the problem.
I’m only 25, but I’ve lived in underground criminal networks my whole life. I’ve seen people commit fraud to move into nicer neighborhoods/apartments/schools by falsifying bank statements with the help of accountants. I smiled and told them that they understood what “illegal immigration” was all about. I’ve seen several marriage frauds from Canadian migrants, Hispanics and others. I’ve seen “illegal immigrants” become “legal immigrants,” and “legal immigrants” become “illegal.” I’ve seen teen sex workers, and teen drug dealers working to feed their children, their families, or to buy the latest video game.
Most violence comes from poverty and it usually exists interracially, within our close community, friends and family circles. These issues should be close to home for all of us and we should understand why most victims don’t just want to throw someone behind bars. In fact, most victims of abuse do not want to prosecute their abuser. Most violence is by someone we know, and the justice system demands we call police and start a legal case. This means that our social circles are often destroyed or split up and it becomes a life or death battle for both sides. As a victim of rape, and child molestation, I was treated like I was crazy for not wanting to go through the prosecution progress. I just wanted the abuse to stop and to never see my abusers again. Instead my parents, various counselors and lawyers forced me to see my abuser, relive the pain over and over again for an ideal called “justice.” That “justice” would mean my abuser would be behind bars, but most abusers (if they do see a day in court – which is rare), walk free anyway. Yet, no one seems to talk about or really care that this “justice system” is highly traumatic, has zero to do with healing, and consider that maybe we should stop forcing and coercing victims into this process. This is not victim centered, no matter who much the self-described “voices of the voiceless” continue to preach that it is.
Most people in underground networks, like the drug trade, sex work, or undocumented immigrants, have experienced or seen acts of coercion, abuse, fraud, deception, etc. Most don’t identify as victims. My parents, my people and I have worked in exploitative jobs, in the fields for less than $5 an hour, have been injured or seen extreme abuse, or experienced deception at work. I have seen my grandmother murdered by gang members, and have met murderers myself, my cousin who was a drug dealer and was in a gang was eventually murdered by police. None of my people get treated like “victims,” there is no justice. Instead, we are given fear, silence, eternal punishment, and even death. I would love to tell my story and prance around with the “trafficking victim” label, but it takes privilege to do that. There is no real difference between the lucky few that are seen and identify as “sex trafficking victims/survivors” and criminalized sex workers, migrants, and drug users. It simply isn’t true that sex trafficking victims didn’t have many options, or were forced, while the rest of us weren’t. The idea that sex trafficking victims (most of whom left the industry) are more marginalized than all the current sex workers stems from a hatred and dehumanization of sex workers. It’s epistemic injustice, the idea that there is something wrong with sex workers and that they can’t be trusted unless they’re “reformed,” and stop being sex workers. Sex trafficking victims are often placed on a pedestal, their memories of working in the sex industry are used to create training for police, to create federal and state policy, to create tech to identify sex workers and report them. Sex trafficking victims are used in corporate, police, and state campaigns to push for more surveillance, and criminalization. Sex trafficking victims tend to be white women who are US citizens. Most sex trafficking ads are of white woman with dark figures and dark hands over their mouths. Most of the sex trafficking awareness ads in hotels are written in English only, and the Department of Homeland Security/ICE is behind the human trafficking hotline.
Human Trafficking (the definition and the concept) was created by the UN, a collaboration of nation states and academics who study “underground populations.” The purpose was to protect “perfect victims” who shouldn’t be marked as “criminals.” The Trafficking Protocol/ UN TIP, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children is a treaty against “Transnational Organized Crime” and is one of three protocols, the others being the Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air and the Protocol Against the Illicit Manufacturing and Trafficking in Firearms. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is responsible for implementing the protocols through laws, resources, and “anti-trafficking strategies.” I am part of the underground population, and my family, my community and I wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for transnational organized crime. I am both a criminal and a victim of the system. When I hear talk about “illegals,” “traffickers,” “pimps” and “criminals” I know that those are my people, and I belong with them.
We live in the criminal justice system, where people exist within a binary. We are either criminals or victims, “illegals” or legal, “trafficked/slaves” or “free/workers”. On one side is the idea of victimhood, purity, and validation from the system, on the other is the idea of a disposable irredeemable person who deserves segregation, a cage and the worst abuses the state can offer.
The binary vision of criminals and victims has created a convenient narrative to build a global police force where mostly white people have redefined “slavery” in a way that they’re comfortable discussing it. Slavery is no longer a systemic issue, it’s individual “slave-masters/traffickers” that the state and “legal” powers must subdue through their goodness and saviorism. Mostly powerful white people have defined what human trafficking is, the criteria by which to fight it, measure success, and win awards for “ending slavery.” International Justice Mission is the biggest anti-human trafficking organization in the US. According to Guidestar, they received around 71 million dollars in 2017. In 2012, Gary Haugen was awarded the “TIP Report Hero Acting to End Modern Slavery” by the US Department of State. An interview for the New Yorker highlighted that “Haugen believes that the biggest problem on earth is not too little democracy, or too much poverty, or too few anti-retroviral aids medicines, but, rather, an absence of proper law enforcement.” Haugen regularly preaches that the way to end “slavery” is to enforce “law and order.” Police, prisons, deportations, handcuffs, and shackles are salvation from enslavement. Democracy, an end to poverty, having access to sex education, contraceptives, and life-saving medicines is viewed as unimportant in comparison.
You can find human trafficking (mostly sex trafficking) organizations, that look like businesses in every US state. You can shop for various items that are marketed as being made by the hands of “sex trafficking survivors,” every purchase liberates slaves by investing into their “non-profit” that puts them to work for an undisclosed wage. These anti sex trafficking nonprofits work with police, and other criminalization institutions, and depend on them to get labor and advertisements of happy and “empowered” sex trafficking survivors working for free or a “low skilled” wage. Where I live, there is an organization called Restore NYC Inc. which works with a dozen local businesses to employ migrant “sex trafficking victims.” According to Restore NYC Inc., these migrant women are making around $1227 a month, which in NYC is barely minimum wage. Most of the money going into the organization goes into the salaries of the people who run it, to train law enforcement and create programs where criminalized migrant women are put to work. Sex trafficking can get federal funding but sex worker organizations cannot. Crisis Pregnancy Centers where people impersonate doctors to lie and mislead women are federally funded, but abortions are not. This is anti-women policy that dictates that women who “misbehave” should not have rights or have a say in what happens to them.
I feel uncomfortable with how much people accept the idea that millions of people exist without agency, people who are merely objects to be bought and sold, people who are incapable of thinking, speaking, or acting for themselves. When we talk about dehumanization and objectification, I can think of nothing worse than denying someone their free will, and their voice to speak from their experiences. It can be argued that free will doesn’t exist since we are social animals and we are all influenced by various factors into making choices we think we make freely. However, the discussion of agency within sex trafficking is very privileged. Powerful institutions decide that some persons are “free,” and people in the “legal” markets with legal immigration status are “free.” Because we are poor, marginalized, criminalized, we are less free, and therefore it is taken for granted that we don’t have free will. The analysis from these powerful institutions and moral crusaders never seems to go into how criminalization creates a cycle of poverty, or even how our inequality was created largely to benefit these institutions. When you combine this with the fact that many anti sex trafficking organizations are Christian organizations or missionaries, it becomes even more terrifying. For Christians, having a free will is what makes us human beings, it’s having a soul, knowing good from evil, it’s what God gave everyone that he made into his image. It’s the worst thing you can deny someone.
I can’t vote, and I don’t have full rights to anything. I have few options, and that’s exactly why my voice and my agency should matter more. I have more to lose from speaking and face heavier punishment for expressing myself and expressing my will.