The Elephant in the Room is a new series written by LAF attorneys discussing their experience representing individuals in situations impacted by systemic racism. Names have been changed to protect privacy.
The Atlantic recently published a poignant, but problematic article from author Alex Tizon that details how his family enslaved a Filipino woman, forcing her into domestic servitude, for decades. Tinzon struggles to understand how and why his parents mistreated this woman, known to him as Lola, for years. It is a shocking confession of modern-day slavery in the United States. For many readers, this article exposed them to the insidious nature of human trafficking. Lola is a figure that is ever-present and always working; outsiders find it odd that she is always cooking and cleaning, yet they never are able to name what is happening to her. Human trafficking is evasive like that–it is a crime that occurs in almost all industries, but we find it hard to identify it because it is easier to believe that slavery no longer occurs in the United States. But human trafficking isn’t just a global problem, it’s a local one.
At LAF we combat both sex and labor trafficking through our Trafficking Survivors’ Assistance Program (TSAP). TSAP provides legal representation to human trafficking survivors from all over the world, including U.S. citizens, in a variety of legal areas. While our client demographics are diverse, many clients come from similar circumstances that left them susceptible to traffickers. Human trafficking survivors come from vulnerable populations: runaways, homeless youth, domestic violence victims, impoverished migrants, and other marginalized communities that make them not only easy targets for traffickers, but easier still for the general population to dismiss as “real” victims. This is why one of TSAP’s biggest and recurrent responsibilities is to convince law enforcement officials that our clients are in fact survivors of human trafficking eligible for various forms of legal remedies.
Failing to recognize survivors of human trafficking is an overarching problem. While victims come from all walks of life, people often have a set idea of what a real victim looks like. They may imagine a young White woman forced into sex work. While White women are trafficked, they are not the only ones targeted by traffickers. Women of color are also preyed upon and coerced into prostitution, yet they are more likely to be ignored and dismissed by those in charge with protecting survivors. This problem is argued in great detail by law professor Cheryl Nelson Butler in her article, The Racial Roots of Human Trafficking. Professor Butler argues that a major reason why the justice system fails to see women of color as victims is due to long-held stereotypes that perpetuate myths about their sexuality. This results in women of color being punished more harshly for prostitution rather than being offered assistance as human trafficking survivors. At LAF, we see the barriers placed before our client/survivors when they fail to meet the sex trafficking survivor prototype. We fight right alongside them to educate law enforcement and obtain the legal relief available to our clients.
Beyond sex trafficking, deep-seeded racial stereotypes facilitate labor trafficking. Certain social groups are stereotyped with being hard workers or submissive, which allows traffickers to abuse people under the guise of hard work. The power of racial stereotypes became evident in a recent trafficking case involving Chinese buffet restaurant workers. We represented some of the trafficking survivors who were primarily from Latin America. Various temp agencies placed our clients in restaurants after advertising that they had “honest” Mexicans available for work. The restaurant owners then worked our clients to exhaustion through physical and emotional abuse.
So while racial stereotypes may seem disconnected from human trafficking, the truth is that traffickers use all tools at their disposal to further their crime. Relying on the public’s implicit bias that certain groups don’t mind being “worked hard” or that other groups are hypersexualized works to the traffickers’ advantage. It makes the public question and dismiss whether a survivor is a “true” victim because they fail to meet a stereotypical standard. With over 20 million people trafficked globally, we know that people are trafficked from all walks of life. Yet, when we envision only one type of victim we do a disservice to all other survivors of human trafficking. Further, we embolden the trafficker who opts to victimize certain types of people believing that no one will care about their wellbeing.
LAF cares, and through TSAP we ensure that traffickers are held accountable; law enforcement protects all people; and our communities gain awareness to fight this ever-present problem.