Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking

International Migrants Day 2020: Modeling Resiliency in Uncertain Times

Today’s guest post comes from Julia Owen, a recent alumni of LCHT’s Leadership Development Program. Julia works professionally in the immigration field in Colorado. Her perspective this International Migrants Day provides important insight into the resilience of immigrants seeking relief, but also the compounding circumstances of a global pandemic, that can increase the vulnerabilities we associate with exploitation and human trafficking.


Imagine waking up some time this year to go to work at a job still requiring an in-person labor force. As you begin to get ready, you notice a scratchy throat and a headache. Then a few minutes later, you realize you can’t smell your coffee and you’re also experiencing some shortness of breath. Now imagine understanding one more thing: that you can’t risk seeking medical help because it could affect your ability to stay in the United States.

According to the New York Times, many documented and undocumented immigrants in the United States will avoid receiving medical assistance, even in an emergency, even during a pandemic, because of fear it could make them ineligible for immigration benefits. Or worse, it could put them at risk of deportation. This fear is partly due to the Public Charge Rule, that penalizes immigrants for receiving public benefits when applying for green cards or visas. While USCIS has indicated the public charge rule would not apply to those seeking medical attention for COVID-19, this does not change mistrust around the rule.

Although difficult to imagine, human rights violations like lack of access to healthcare due to immigration status are commonplace in 2020, and create favorable conditions for human trafficking. 

Beyond the Public Charge Rule, many immigrants fear being identified for deportation if they visit a medical facility. This practice, while often “avoided” by ICE, is not prohibited. To make matters worse, many migrants have a higher likelihood of contracting COVID-19 due to vulnerabilities like poverty, lack of sick pay, holding jobs in frontline essential industries, and inability to quarantine from multigenerational households. A Kaiser Family Foundation report found that non-citizens were “significantly” more likely to be uninsured than citizens, and that 23% of documented immigrants and 45% of undocumented immigrants do not have health insurance, often due to the same vulnerabilities listed above. Although difficult to imagine, human rights violations like lack of access to healthcare due to immigration status are commonplace in 2020, and create favorable conditions for human trafficking. 

COVID-19’s Impact on Immigrant Populations

Undoubtably, COVID-19 has added another layer of risk for populations already vulnerable to trafficking including documented and undocumented immigrants. According to an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association, the pandemic has not only increased the risk of human trafficking, but also made it more difficult to identify those experiencing trafficking and provide them appropriate support. High rates of unemployment and job loss from the pandemic are especially difficult for many immigrants whose legal status is tied to their employment. In fact, an OHCHR report found that immigrants can face doubled hardship from COVID; if they lose their jobs this can cause a termination of immigration status, while COVID travel restrictions could leave them unable to return home. Immigrants left without a route to legal employment or a way back home are extremely vulnerable to targeting by traffickers. 

COVID-19 has increased risks associated with human trafficking for immigrant populations, often working essential jobs during the pandemic. 📷 @JonTyson

Restrictive Immigration Policies Reduce Legal Options

While the pandemic has magnified migrant vulnerability to trafficking, it builds upon layers of disadvantages this population faces including xenophobia and restrictive immigration policies. Over the last several years, immigration changes like the Public Charge Rule, attempts to end the DACA program, and the highly publicized separation of children and parents at the U.S. border have contributed to an atmosphere of fear. This tone, often set by the policy, can lead to a general distrust of institutions within immigrant communities. The net result is fewer immigrants seeking help when they need it.

Many immigration policies in recent years have sent the clear signal that fewer immigrants are welcome in the United States: the non-partisan National Foundation for American Policy predicts, “the number of legal immigrants will decline by 49% …between FY 2016 and FY 2021.” The United States will accept only 18,000 refugees in FY 2021, down from 110,000 in 2016. As these policies have continued to tighten during the pandemic, the issuance of a new rule makes it even more difficult to qualify for asylum and largely excludes those who face “persecution based on gender or gang violence” from asylum eligibility.

Immigrants Enriching Communities Worldwide

It is clear that restrictive immigration policies not only contribute to a culture of fear, but also reduce the legal options immigrants have; leaving them with fewer routes to support their families, and making them more vulnerable to exploitive situations. But despite the unprecedented challenges migrants face in 2020, their resourcefulness, resiliency, and hope is formidable. Migrants have persevered through harrowing experiences, often uprooting their lives to escape poverty, political unrest, religious persecution, violence, lack of economic opportunity, and war.

The UN theme for International Migrants Day in 2020 recognizes “the estimated 272 million migrants that are integral members of all our societies today,” and specifically highlights their stories of cohesion. Ultimately, we are invited to consider how the lived experiences of immigrants are enriching our communities.

This year as the majority of the population experiences adversity, insecurity, and vulnerability, it is important to remember that some populations, including migrants, always experience higher levels of vulnerability and these people are also the most likely to experience human trafficking.

Coloradans can appreciate these stories of immigrant cohesion first hand, as one-in-ten Coloradans are immigrants, and another one-in-ten Coloradans is a citizen with at least one immigrant parent according to the American Immigration Council. Colorado has also been enriched by immigrants, as immigrant-led households paid $1.5 billion in state and local taxes, made $14.2 billion in spending income, and contributed $1 billion in self-employed business income to the state in 2018. Beyond economics, as the International Organization for Migration Director General António Vitorino states, “Migrants can also become – often surprising – champions of resilience when times are tough, when a community experiences unexpected shocks, including environmental change and disaster, unemployment, and political turmoil.”

Immigrants model the resiliency required to survive the uncertainty, vulnerability, and fear 2020 brought and this should be celebrated. But many of the hardships migrants face must be recognized for what they are: human rights violations. This year as the majority of the population experiences adversity, insecurity, and vulnerability, it is important to remember that some populations, including migrants, always experience higher levels of vulnerability and these people are also the most likely to experience human trafficking. If you would like to contribute to LCHT’s efforts to end human trafficking and protect vulnerable populations from this crime, please consider contributing to the We Imagine campaign. 

Author: Julia Owen
Julia Owen participated in the Fall 2020 Leadership Development Program at LCHT as a Research and Action Intern. She would highly recommend this program to anyone who wishes to better understand the human rights and anti-trafficking spaces while growing as a leader! Julia has volunteered for nonprofits domestically and abroad that support human rights. She currently works in the immigration field in Denver.

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