“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
As Christians, we believe we are called to seek the abolition of all slavery, involuntary servitude, and cruel treatment of people, regardless of their ethnicity, country of origin, gender, religion, mode of entry into the country, or any other factor. This includes the abolition of modern-day slavery. However, many don’t realize that a conversation about ending human trafficking in the U.S. is incomplete without a conversation about immigration reform.
It’s been one year since the Senate passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill. Despite an overwhelming majority of Americans agreeing that immigration policy needs at least major changes — 35 percent say it needs to be “completely rebuilt” — reform has yet to come. The reason? The House of Representatives has yet to take action.
The anniversary of the Senate passing the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act comes at a time of significant increase in the arrival of unaccompanied migrant children. These children, also known as unaccompanied alien children (UAC), enter the United States without a parent or guardian and without lawful immigration status.
Approximately 6,000 to 7,000 unaccompanied children arrived annually before 2012. But, as many as 60,000 children, mainly from Central America and Mexico, are expected to come into the United States this year, many of whom are desperately seeking to escape the extreme levels of violence and poverty in their home countries. This is not only a challenge for our overworked immigration courts, but is also inherently connected to the larger issue of human trafficking.
Immigrants are especially vulnerable to human trafficking due to their disproportionately lower socio-economic status, limited education, linguistic and cultural unfamiliarity, and fear of law enforcement. The Faith Alliance Against Slavery & Trafficking (FAAST), a coalition of Christian organizations working to eradicate human trafficking and restore survivors, recently released a briefing paper, “Uniquely Vulnerable: The Nexus between Human Trafficking and Immigration.” This paper, which was sent to several Congressional offices, highlights the unique vulnerability that immigrants have as both sex and labor trafficking victims. FAAST found that 95 percent of all labor trafficking victims in the U.S. are foreign born and 80 percent are undocumented. Additionally, 2 out of 10 sex trafficking victims are non-citizens.
Given these statistics and the already known vulnerability of children, migrant youth are at a particularly high risk for being trafficked for labor or sex work. In fact, many of the children entering the United States from Central America and Mexico have been abused or coerced by smugglers under the promise that they would receive lawful citizenship in the U.S. Traffickers use this tactic to later sell children into labor or sex trafficking.
As the U.S. administration coordinates a response, it needs to ensure unaccompanied children receive proper screenings when they are picked up at the border so victims of trafficking, either in their home countries or on their route here, can be afforded proper protection.
The administration’s intent to ask for legislative changes to rollback protections that were passed in 2008 and are currently being used to screen children and transfer their custody to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is extremely troubling.We also must ensure that the resources dedicated to care for these children do not come at the expense of other vulnerable populations, including refugees being resettled to the United States. But these are only parts of the solution.
Trafficking and immigration are fundamentally tied together. The dysfunction in our immigration system, which often makes it impossible to immigrate legally, effectively encourages unlawful behavior and is used as a tool for traffickers to prey upon the vulnerable. This is especially apparent with the increase in unaccompanied minors crossing our border. Congress needs to replace our broken system once and for all and remove the opportunity for criminal smugglers and traffickers to spread false information and profit from families’ desperation. The policy debate of what needs to be done within immigration reform has already been won; now it’s only a matter of when it will pass.
As followers of Jesus, we have a mandate to care for the poor, the suffering, those who are abandoned, and those who are exploited. Our government also has a responsibility to create laws that reflect the principles espoused by a majority of Americans — to ensure due process and protection for the most vulnerable of our society.
The House of Representatives has an opportunity to ensure that victims of trafficking have the protection they need by increasing penalties for human traffickers and ensuring victims of trafficking have the appropriate protections and services they need. The Senate did this in its bill passed one year ago. Creating a way for millions of immigrants to come out of the shadows and earn legal status makes them less vulnerable to become victims of trafficking. The faith community — and organizations like FAAST — may be steadfast in its efforts to serve victims, but immigration reform will do significantly more.
As Congress dithers, opportunities for exploitation, abuse, and trafficking abound. It’s time for Congress to hear the voices of millions in the faith, law enforcement, and business communities. Passing immigration reform is not just good for our economy and national security, but it’s the right thing to do to care for some of the most vulnerable people in our country — victims of trafficking, refugees, and immigrants — who live in constant fear and often believe that the protection of the law does not extend to them.
Image courtesy of Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com.