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The Trump Administration Finally Broke the Anti-Trafficking Movement

The bipartisan movement to “combat trafficking” was built on many of the same superficialities as the First Family, but everyone has their limit.

Tom Brenner/Getty Images

When Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, 20 years ago, it was hailed as a shining example of bipartisan consensus. “You’ve got soccer moms and Southern Baptists, the National Organization for Women and the National Association of Evangelicals on the same side of the issue,” Michael Horowitz, senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute and one of the architects of the alliance behind the TVPA, told World magazine in 2002. “Gloria Steinem and Chuck Colson together.” The signature federal anti-trafficking legislation defines labor and sex trafficking as crimes, as well as providing a mandate for their prosecution, and in the years since it first passed, the coalition behind it has remained largely intact. The groups that first committed to the “War on Human Trafficking” have maintained a shared purpose apparently outside of politics: punishing traffickers, “rescuing” victims.  

At the very least, they have been reluctant to part ways in public, much less disagree with any particular administration in power. Then Donald Trump became president. 

A White House summit hosted by Ivanka Trump in late January, closing out “National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month,” was supposed to be an anodyne photo op marking the anniversary of the TVPA. People make speeches, eat the catering, and go home. But this year, most of the country’s major anti–human trafficking groups, including the largest network of organizations that directly serve survivors of trafficking, were not in attendance. The Washington Post, which broke the news, called it a “boycott,” in reaction to the administration’s abandonment of noncitizen survivors of trafficking. 

“We decided because what we see happening on the ground is so troubling, and so far removed from the rhetoric coming out of the White House that we didn’t feel in good conscience that we could attend,” Martina Vandenberg, executive director of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, told me. While the Trump administration uses a sensationalistic, false narrative of trafficking at the southern border to justify anti-immigrant policies—and stoke racist panic among Trump’s base about threats to white women—it has abandoned actual survivors of trafficking when they need immigration relief themselves. “We see people suffering in limbo because of the policies of this administration,” Vandenberg said. 

This administration, she continued, has produced the largest backlog of pending T-visa applications—the specialized visa created by the TVPA for immigrant survivors—along with the highest number of denials in the history of the program and the lowest number of approvals in nearly a decade.  

“It’s incredibly difficult now to support, assist, and protect immigrant survivors of trafficking, who make up most of the labor-trafficking survivors,” Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network, a coalition of more than 60 anti-trafficking groups, told me. The group also declined to attend the White House summit after internal discussions and a survey of its member organizations. Under this administration, “there is a nearly complete emphasis on sex trafficking, especially of minors—which is certainly a population that needs significant resources and support,” Bruggeman said. “But what this administration is doing is putting everyone else at higher risk by enacting policies that make them less likely to come forward for services and support.” 

We may also be starting to see this prioritization in the Trump administration’s grantmaking: A little more than a week after the summit, a Justice Department conflict over anti-trafficking funding for faith-based groups went public. Reuters reported a whistleblower complaint, filed in December by the department’s employee union, requesting an investigation out of concern that groups with questionable track records were getting federal funds for anti-trafficking work. Meanwhile, groups that scored higher on their grant applications (as ranked by outside experts in a peer-review process) but had a record of opposing Trump’s policies or supporting Democrats, were denied funding. The grants, made through the Office of Justice Programs, were approved by director Katharine Sullivan, who defended the decision as “merit-based.” 

One of those merit-based grantees is a “safe house” called Destiny House, run by the Nevada group Hookers for Jesus. According to an internal manual obtained by Reuters, Hookers for Jesus had a policy that required survivors to participate in religious activities and punished them for infractions like reading magazines that, according to the manual, “portray worldly views/advice on living, sex, clothing, makeup tips.” Staff at Destiny House, meanwhile, are told that homosexuality is a sin and drug use is “witchcraft.” All of this could be a violation of anti-discrimination laws that bar federal funds from going to explicitly religious activities, according to lawyers who spoke to Reuters. (Nevada, which awarded Destiny House a $300,000 grant in 2017, did not renew its funding in 2018 after obtaining a copy of its manual.) 

In just three years, then, Trump has accomplished what no president before him had, in the fight against human trafficking: His administration made it clear that anti-trafficking work, if it’s ever going to succeed, requires fighting economic inequality, racism, and xenophobia in all its forms. Groups that see his policies putting survivors in harm’s way can no longer work under the notion that a commitment to “fighting trafficking” transcends politics—or exists in a vacuum from labor rights, immigrant rights, and racial and gender justice. And through his anti-immigrant agenda and willingness to use his office to punish his perceived opponents, Trump has made the issue toxic enough for major organizations to break from the silent consensus that has ruled anti-trafficking work for the last two decades.

Even as dynamics in the anti-trafficking movement may be shifting through public dissent, the Trump policies being criticized will leave lasting damage and may endure even once he’s left office. An executive order issued in concert with the summit created a White House trafficking czar position, focused on domestic trafficking. And this year, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act is up for reauthorization, which creates an opportunity for Trump allies such as Josh Hawley, the junior senator from Missouri, to advance the administration’s trafficking priorities. 

The issue of sex trafficking helped bring Hawley to national prominence, after he claimed, as Missouri’s then-attorney general, that it was a product of the sexual revolution. “We have a human trafficking crisis in our state and in this city and in our country because people are willing to purchase women, young women, and treat them like commodities,” Hawley said during a “Pastors and Pews” event in late 2017. “There is a market for it. Why is there? Because our culture has completely lost its way. The sexual revolution has led to exploitation of women on a scale that we would never have imagined, never have imagined.”  

Hawley, activating a clause in the TVPA that had mostly fallen by the wayside, wants to fund a two-part “comprehensive study” of human trafficking. According to a draft obtained by The New Republic, the first part would focus on “severe forms of trafficking in persons.” The second part of the study would focus on “sex trafficking and unlawful commercial sex acts.”  The study’s concern with sex work, which is often conflated in mainstream politics and media coverage to mean sex trafficking, is explicit in its directive to gather data on “persons engaged in … commercial sex acts.” A spokesperson for Hawley, Kelli Ford, told me by email: “Regardless of where you fall in the debate on proposals to combat human trafficking, better data is an important step in understanding the scope of the problem and the shape of the trafficking industry.”

Hawley’s focus on sex trafficking isn’t unique: Twenty years into America’s anti-trafficking efforts, it is clear that it has mostly been about sex trafficking, to the exclusion of survivors of labor trafficking. And while this has been the case under prior administrations, it’s also clear that, for Trump and his congressional allies, such a war on sex trafficking neatly advances their broader goals: expanding the power and reach of law enforcement; enriching dubious private charities; and reasserting their dominance over the rights of women, immigrants, and workers.

And like so many things in the Trump administration, the trafficking fight has largely been managed by his inner circle. The White House summit hosted by Ivanka Trump this year continued in the mode set at the administration’s first White House roundtable on human trafficking. That event was held shortly after Trump took office and was also led by his daughter. It marked the beginning of her nearly two-year service as de facto head of U.S. anti-trafficking efforts—only in late 2018 did someone finally fill the highest anti-trafficking position in federal government, the ambassador-at-large to monitor and combat trafficking in persons, which is mandated by the TVPA. (John Cotton Richmond, who won the post, was given no pride-of-place position on the agenda of this year’s summit—he simply moderated the event’s second panel. Ivanka gave the opening speech. And even with Richmond in the ambassador position, a “senior administration official” said a new position in the Domestic Policy Council  “solely devoted to combat human trafficking” would be coordinating “very closely with Ivanka’s office.”)

At the summit, in the absence of major anti-trafficking groups, Ivanka Trump lent her spotlight to a stage where Mike Pence could liberally invoke a fight between “evil” and “innocence” and then thank the president for “empowering” faith-based groups. Callista Gingrich, ambassador to the Holy See (and wife of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich), applauded an American “training course” to mobilize thousands of Catholic sisters in nearly 100 countries, to serve as government partners “braving the omnipresent threat of criminal and terrorist operations that profit from this global crime.” Ann Wagner, a Republican representative from Ohio, followed this evangelizing by informing those assembled that “sex trafficking was hiding in plain sight in every community, in every faith organization, in every cul-de-sac, in every school district, all across our country”—all without the gentlest of fact checks.

But this fight against something that is apparently everywhere—an “evil” that exists outside history or material context—is itself a Washington creation, long preceding Trump. When the TVPA was crafted in the late 1990s, it was guided by institutions selected by conservatives like Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute and his allies. Chuck Colson—Richard Nixon’s “dirty tricks” man, one of the few men to serve time for Watergate and who emerged born-again and devoted to prison ministry—and Gloria Steinem—the highly visible women’s rights leader and author, who began her writing career going undercover at a Playboy Club in the 1960s and who regards sex work as “the equivalent of commercial rape”—did not end up on the “same side” of the trafficking fight by coincidence. The groups Horowitz gathered, as chronicled by Allen D. Hertzke, a religion and politics scholar, in his book Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights, were far more invested in fighting prostitution than human trafficking. This was not a survivor-led movement at the beginning, said Christy Croft, who has lived experience in the sex trade (“some of that consensual, some of it by circumstance, and some of it was trafficked,” they told me), and who has worked in the anti–sexual violence movement for over a decade. Unlike that movement, Croft told The New Republic, which began with domestic violence and sexual assault survivors who weren’t being served by existing institutions, the anti-trafficking movement was top-down.

“The trafficking movement did not come out of survivors organizing to protect themselves and only recently started incorporating survivor input,” Croft said. Even when it did, they said, the movement excluded survivors who didn’t promote its particular narrative of sex trafficking. And if survivors challenged it, “they push back, they’re like, ‘you just don’t understand trafficking,’ especially around sex trafficking, as if it’s some elite, special harm, and not just sexual violence and violence against sex workers.” These anti-trafficking “experts” were defining away anything that didn’t fit their view of trafficking, even if it meant discounting the lived experience of survivors.  

That narrative is the reason why sex and labor trafficking are divided from one another in the TVPA—by defining them as separate crimes—and it was because the institutions and lobbyists who shaped the law don’t see prostitution as a form of labor. “One of the biggest issues that led into the separation is because people don’t want to see sex work as work,” Suamhirs Piraino-Guzman, a survivor advocate who was appointed by Barack Obama to the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, told me. “If you ask me, that’s the only reason we aren’t saying ‘forced labor’ or ‘forced work,’ because then the federal government would have to acknowledge that sex work is work.”

This separation, he said, was “the biggest mistake the human trafficking movement made.” It led to “this supreme hypersexualization, and all this funding being put into sex trafficking … and putting labor trafficking aside as this undesirable thing, because mostly we see undocumented folks.” In this way, Trump’s sensationalist framing about “bound” women trapped and abused by “foreign” men is really the product of a decades-long campaign to define such unlikely scenarios as “real” human trafficking.  

Piraino-Guzman was also invited to the White House summit but turned down the invitation. “We wanted to ensure all victims of trafficking were receiving the same amount of support, no matter where they are from or their immigration status,” he said, “and that when we are talking about human trafficking, we are talking about labor trafficking.” 

For years, this split between “labor” and “sex” trafficking has not only divided the movement—it has also allowed anti-prostitution campaigners to use the anti-trafficking fight as a proxy war over sex work. Subsequent reauthorizations of the TVPA introduced an “end-demand” approach—which reimagines existing prostitution stings where police pose as sex workers in order to arrest their alleged customers—as anti-trafficking work. As a result, anti-trafficking efforts would be evaluated in part based on how they “reduce … demand for commercial sex acts.” (End-demand advocates claim that threatening men who buy sex with arrest will decrease trafficking, but in truth, according to sex workers’ rights groups and international human rights organizations like Amnesty International, this approach has increased the risk of violence and exploitation faced by sex workers.)

End demand also doesn’t address trafficking outside of the sex trade and is never advocated as an anti-labor-trafficking strategy. “You know the stories: ‘Sex work creates the demand,’” said Christy Croft. “Well, Whole Foods creates the ‘demand’ for labor trafficking, and yet I’m not going to go slap a cabbage out of someone’s hand in the produce department. We need to get more creative about how we’re thinking about ending this.”

But even the sex-work divide is less powerful than it once was. Over the last several years, more anti-trafficking groups have spoken out against laws targeting online sex work in the guise of fighting trafficking. And they were joined by more survivors of trafficking, who struggled to be heard when it came to laws meant for their protection.

“We’re realizing we need to organize to protect each other and ourselves,” said Croft. 

You can see this in some of the more practical, grassroots anti-trafficking work developed by and with people who have been trafficked: Domestic workers who have been trafficked not seeking the arrest of their customers but instead focusing on changing laws and policies to ensure they are protected like any other worker. Or immigrant farmworkers hired under a special visa program, facing bosses who stole their wages and threatened to take their passports away, filing civil suits to recover their pay and prevent their bosses from abusing visa programs in the future. Or one collective of low-wage Filipino workers focusing on community organizing as anti-trafficking work, including cop-watching and know-your-rights trainings for immigrants.

Those in the anti-trafficking movement who see their job as creating a more just society for people who have been forced to work, whether through deception or violence, run headlong into all of the systems that enable this abuse, and all the systems that fail people who have been trafficked. That includes the cornerstone law designed to “combat human trafficking” in this country. 

“The TVPA needs to be amended. And we need to rewrite it,” said Suamhirs Piraino-Guzman, the survivor advocate and former Obama appointee. “There’s ways to describe human trafficking as human trafficking and not necessarily splitting them both into sex and labor trafficking. I think we need to restart … to protect labor-trafficking survivors, foreign nationals—all people regardless of where they are from.”

In the last two decades, the idea of “combating human trafficking” has been bent to serve different agendas under different administrations. This contortion was always political, erasing the material conditions of people’s lives—and the policies that would address them—in order to tell a nice story about bipartisan cooperation. The movement has long been a giveaway to police and sketchy “rescue” operations, a photo op for the right kinds of politicians—all at the expense of everything else. As we’ve seen before, the Trump administration just said the quiet part loud.