Service providers stress that coerced sex brutalizes victims, and they're glad the government and the media are concerned. But they wonder why other workers' suffering gets so much less attention. The terror evoked by imprisonment in a sweatshop, says CAST's Buck, "is just as severe as it is for a person who's sex trafficked." What's more, most people who've been trafficked are in the country without immigration papers. Indeed, they went into bondage to begin with because enforcement of this country's borders is getting more and more strict. Tightening borders ups the price of being smuggled, according to UN researcher Susan Forbes Martin. Smugglers often import their clients on credit, selling the debt to restaurant, sweatshop and brothel owners; debtor immigrants then work off the money they owe. Even when voluntary, this debt-bondage arrangement is illegal, like just about everything else in undocumented immigrants' lives. They're so used to being underground that "they're more terrified of the government than of traffickers," says attorney Juhu Thukral, director of the New York City-based Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Institute.
As part of its work with prostitutes, the Sex Workers Project assists trafficking victims. But "when we say, 'You have to sit down with FBI agents,'" Thukral says, "suddenly the trafficking situation they escaped from doesn't seem so bad." Or at least not bad enough to apply for TVPA assistance--even when the forced labor involves prostitution. Immigrants "may say, 'What do I need a green card for? I can get a job in a restaurant without it. I just want to make some money for my family, then go home.'" Three out of four of Thukral's clients refuse to talk to the government. Other service providers cite similar ratios. Trafficking victims who do cooperate can get a T visa even if the government decides it's too much trouble to prosecute their case (this is what happened to Alice B.).
But cooperation is often a carrot-and-stick deal: In return for visas, victims help curtail other people's ability to immigrate without papers. Mie Lewis, an attorney who worked until recently with the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Task Force, recalls that her clients who met with prosecutors "would be grilled about the circumstances of their entry into this country." Immigration agents "used them as sources of information about holes in the border, asking, 'Where, exactly, did you cross out of Canada? Where did you get your [fake] documents?'" As University of Southern Maine sociologist and women's studies professor Wendy Chapkis says, the TVPA "serves as a soft glove covering a still punishing fist" of US immigration policy.
The law contains yet another stick. Under the TVPA the US government can yank nonhumanitarian foreign aid from nations that, in its estimation, aren't hard enough on trafficking. Currently twelve countries are on this list, including Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela. Meanwhile, the State Department does not evaluate the United States' anti-trafficking work--though the Justice Department prosecuted only thirty-two trafficking cases from the time the TVPA was instituted until late last year.
And "sex trafficking" has created another foreign and domestic policy knout. The government has lately begun to argue that legal sex work causes sex trafficking. It backs up this claim with dubious data--including from Rhode Island University women's studies professor Donna Hughes, an outspoken advocate of morally conservative policies on trafficking who is getting research money from the State Department. Thus, a revision last year to the TVPA (and an additional law enacted this year for groups working to prevent AIDS--see Esther Kaplan, "Just Say Não," May 30), allows the government to refuse money to NGOs that "promote, support, or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution." The result: Groups that combat trafficking and HIV infection by helping organize prostitutes, groups that believe prostitution should be decriminalized, groups with no position one way or another on legalization--all now risk losing resources unless they put in writing that prostitution should be outlawed. The Tahirih Justice Center is one victim of the loyalty oath. "We applied last year for money from the State Department to do training on trafficking issues in India," says director Miller-Muro. "We were told, 'You don't have a policy on prostitution.' My understanding is, that's one reason we didn't get the funding."
NGOs are afraid of Bush Administration blacklisting, says Ann Jordan, director of the Initiative Against Trafficking in Persons (IATP) at the Washington, DC-based International Human Rights Law Group. "A new round of funding is coming up," Jordan says. "People feel very intimidated about talking about legalizing prostitution."
Not only is critical discussion about an important feminist issue being chilled. The "sex slave" panic is also silencing critical discussion about the law-and-order fetish for border control in the age of transnationalized labor. "When are we ever going to have a conversation in this country about the fact that we're holding millions of people hostage to immigration policy?" asks Jordan. "Anti-trafficking activists need to hook up with immigration-rights organizing. And with labor organizing, too."