The problem of human trafficking in construction and other industries was on full display at the American Jewish Committee's Immigration Summit 3.0 on March 18 at Rice University in Houston. The panel discussion – featuring Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, Letty Ashworth from Delta Airlines and your humble correspondent – focused on what government and business leaders can do to combat the problem.
No matter how anyone spins it, comprehensive immigration reform is a huge part of the solution. Law enforcement must be enabled to go after those who are actually doing harm to others and not the wider group of people whom many are mad at for being undocumented.
The people who end up as victims of human trafficking may not be who you think. While there are far too many women and children caught up in the criminal enterprise, there are also very many men who are trafficked for their labor. Put simply: Some of them are dying to work. It could be the nail salon worker, the guy toiling every afternoon on a construction site, or the boy who brings water to your table at your favorite Mexican restaurant in Houston. There’s a very good chance they are all victims of human trafficking.
The common perception has been that it is only sex work that brings people to the United States as slaves. But, sex work brings in more than $60 million a year to the states’ biggest counties, according to a study by the League of Women Voters.
Sheriff Garcia told the crowd that while the sex industry is an obvious route for trafficking, the local labor force has been the hardest to crack when it comes to finding and helping victims. He said that it's just as likely that there's a victim repairing your roof or doing your nails as it is to find a victim working in the sex trade. “Folks are being lured to come here with the promise of a better life,” Garcia said. “Immigration reform is tied to the fight against human trafficking,” he said, adding that any reform passed in Washington needs to include a path to citizenship.
Cardinal DiNardo said that the priests around Southeast Texas often deal with the effects of illegal immigration when undocumented families visit churches in need of help. Calling the current situation “absurd”, DiNardo said comprehensive immigration reform needs to be passed for many reasons. Chief among them, “[Immigration reform] is the most intelligent and also the wisest way to deal with people who as immigrants – the vast majority of them – want to be here, do productive work, enrich us, and yet they live in the shadows. If you live in the shadows, you can always be the subject of someone who claims that they will give you a better freedom, but they want to enslave you.” Immigration reform would bring balance to the situation, he said.
As someone who grew up on a farm in Southeast Texas, I’ve lived with the reality of the situation my entire life. When I was growing up, there were only two kinds of people who would work the farmland: the owners of the land and the undocumented immigrants who would work like pistons in an engine day in and day out. I told the crowd at Rice about traveling to the border years ago and seeing X-ray images of vehicles coming across the International Bridge in Laredo. Those images revealed that people were stuffed like insects in every compartment that would hold anything. The way they found one man, agents told me, was they opened the glove compartment on a pickup truck and the man’s face was looking out at them.
People are abused on the way into the country; many times they are abused on job sites (as we have documented over and over again at Construction Citizen); and all too often they are discarded like trash when they are injured or have outlived their usefulness to an employer.
One of the questions from the audience had to do with what resources are available to respond to situations where human trafficking is suspected. The fact is that with government resources shrinking all the time, elected leaders need to be more willing than ever to partner with responsible employers who want to handle things the right way. That’s why I was glad Letty Ashworth from Delta Airlines was on the panel with us. Their company has put in place an impressive program to identify victims of human trafficking when it is happening.
That kind of private sector thinking coupled with comprehensive immigration reform will go a long way toward dealing with the scourge of human trafficking in the United States and around the world.
You can watch the entire 62-minute panel discussion in the videos below.