Human Trafficking Blog

The Intersection Between Migrant Work and Labor Trafficking

Migration and labor rights — in the circles we’re a part of, there’s been a lot of conversation about this topic lately. Labor trafficking and exploitation have been at the forefront of media coverage, with some investigations resulting in important action from different states around the country and also at the Federal level.

Like many cities across the United States, Denver (and Colorado as a whole) has recently experienced an influx of asylum-seeking individuals. In fact, you may have heard in the news that three Denver recreation centers were recently used to temporarily house and support migrants arriving from the southern U.S. border. Or maybe you caught The Summit Daily’s reporting on Colorado ski resorts being questioned about what fair labor looks like, as international student workers on J-1 visas have spoken out about financial stress and inadequate working hours. 

On a national scale, the Biden Administration recently announced a new border crackdown, which could disqualify the vast majority of migrants from being able to seek asylum at the southern border. And late last month, a New York Times exposé on child labor violations across the United States brought renewed attention to this issue across the country. Congressional representatives are demanding investigations from the Biden Administration and many are highlighting how our current immigration policies leave room for child labor exploitation.

Given this heightened focus on immigration and exploitation for labor, we want to provide you with some facts and resources about how migrant work and labor trafficking intersect in Colorado.

What is labor trafficking?

Let’s start with a definition. Labor trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purposes of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. 

Every year, thousands of Mexican and Central American immigrants experience forced labor in the United States. According to the International Labour Organization, this can be understood as work that is “performed involuntarily and under the menace of any penalty.” It refers to situations in which “persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as manipulated debt, retention of identity papers, or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.” (Source: Potato Slaves).

Employees in a factory sorting produce

Photo Credit: Arno Senoner, Unsplash

Do only undocumented workers experience human trafficking?

No, people with documents get exploited, too. Human trafficking within the United States affects victims who are U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, visa holders, and undocumented workers. Foreign national trafficked persons can be in the United States through either legal or illegal means. Although some foreign national victims are undocumented, a significant percentage may have legitimate visas for various purposes.

Who is most vulnerable to labor trafficking?

While people of all identities may experience trafficking, migrants, undocumented individuals, asylees, and refugees experience higher levels of vulnerability and are more likely to experience it. The data shows that a very high number of people who come to the United States from Latin America and the Caribbean are exploited in this way (Source: Polaris).

Colorado’s statewide public awareness campaign, This is Human Trafficking, featured stories based on survivors’ lived experiences. One such story paints the picture of a way that immigrants may be exploited — watch the video below to meet Antonio.

The recent New York Times investigation into child labor violations occurring within many corporations across the U.S. highlighted some of the key vulnerabilities that unaccompanied minors particularly face: children fleeing poverty in search of employment opportunities to support their struggling families back home or pay off debt demanded by smugglers.

As one company representative put it, “If migrant children needed to work full-time, it was preferable for them to have jobs at a well-monitored workplace.” Yes, safe working conditions are critical, AND, we are talking first and foremost about children who have rights – rights to education, safety, labor laws. In many of the examples cited in the NYT article, children were viewed first as workers to fill shifts and to fill orders to ship to consumers around the U.S. This consumer demand (for goods — and often cheap goods) seemingly outweighed the protections that were supposed to be in place for minors: not working during school hours, with limited work hours after 7 pm. In these instances, minors describe not having much recourse (limited support from a national hotline number they had been provided with), let alone oversight of sponsors, in other cases. Helping youth understand their legal rights and the resources available that they can access for help is key to upholding their rights and reducing their vulnerabilities to exploitation.

In another example, adults who enter the U.S. via the H-2 Visa Program represent some of the most shocking statistics of labor exploitation. In the agriculture sector, 76% of likely victims of human trafficking are immigrants, and nearly half of all likely victims (immigrant and not) are from Mexico (Source: Polaris). 

Field workers picking strawberries

Photo Credit: Tim Mossholder, Unsplash

The H-2A guestworker program allows agricultural employers to bring workers from other countries (primarily Mexico) to the United States to work on their farms. Workers have the opportunity to earn more money than they would be able to earn in their home countries, and growers get the labor they need to grow their crops. While this program is often described as win-win, studies show that in reality, it is far from the American ideals of fair treatment and access to justice. 

The power imbalance between employers and workers in the H-2A guestworker program is profoundly skewed in favor of the employer. Because H-2A visas are tied to a single employer, workers who experience abusive working conditions often have little choice but to stay. When H-2A workers lose their jobs, they typically also lose their housing, their right to remain in the U.S., and the opportunity to be recruited in future seasons. Some migrant workers are illegally charged visa fees as high as $5,000 (Source: Polaris).

Field worker carrying a crate of berries

Photo Credit: Tim Mossholder, Unsplash

Why are labor trafficking cases underreported?

The number of victims of labor trafficking is likely much higher than the number of cases that are reported. “Labor trafficking survivors don’t often report because they are afraid, don’t understand what’s happened to them is trafficking, and don’t know to whom or how to report,” says Kara Napolitano, Research and Training Manager at the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking. The majority of those affected don’t speak out, afraid of being turned over to authorities who could mount a case against them and order them to return to their home country. 

Undocumented individuals who are experiencing exploitation may fear seeking help from organizations or authorities for risk of arrest or deportation. Documented workers may choose to stay silent out of fear of losing their visas. Many immigrants may not trust the authorities or systems that exist, for good reason — asking for help could affect their ability to stay in the United States. There’s also the fear of retaliation from employers for speaking out and the fear of retribution by the trafficker against their families, here in the U.S. or in their home countries. “They are afraid, and importantly, they have every reason to be,” continues Kara. 

Headshot of Kara Napolitano, Research and Training Manager at the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking and a quote on migration and labor rights

Why does this issue matter?

In addition to the countless ways that immigrants have benefited our communities, there’s the fact that people fleeing serious circumstances and uprooting their entire lives to move to a new country have often directly experienced or witnessed grave human rights abuses. Many migrants have persevered through harrowing experiences, often uprooting their lives to escape poverty, political unrest, religious persecution, violence, lack of economic opportunity, and war.

Amanda Finger, our Co-founder and Executive Director, reflects: “Exploiters win when we dehumanize people, as witnessed in the news media and on social media. Human trafficking is a crime against an individual human being, not a crime against a border crossing. To prevent human trafficking or to support those who have already survived it, we must see people first as people and not as ‘other’. Dehumanizing or ‘othering’ people is a root cause of human trafficking, and we can work to be conscious of our own language or ability to first learn more.”

Headshot of Amanda Finger, Executive Director at the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking and a quote on migration and labor rights

What’s being done in Colorado to fight this issue? 

At LCHT, one of our partners is the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMAIN), an organization that serves low-income men, women, and children in immigration proceedings. Caleb Stewart, Esq., Senior Staff Attorney, explains, “RMIAN’s programs always begin and end with advocating for the rights of immigrants in Colorado. Combating human trafficking has long been part of that advocacy.”

Not only does RMIAN represent survivors of human trafficking before immigration courts and with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, but they coordinate social services support for survivors, engage the broader community through educational outreach and training, and collaborate with other stakeholders in Colorado to push for policies and systems that will benefit immigrant survivors of human trafficking.

Caleb continues, “the United States has always been made a better country through the diverse perspectives of immigrants that come here to seek a better life. I personally value and am enriched by being surrounded by languages and cultures and feel fortunate to be able to use my legal education as a tool to help people move beyond the barriers put up by selfish and unscrupulous perpetrators of human traffickers who have taken advantage of the vulnerabilities inherent in our present immigration system.”

What other resources are available?

Combatting labor trafficking in Colorado starts with “informing people about their wage and labor rights and what resources are available to help them when they aren’t being paid for the work they’ve done,” says Amanda. We can create safer situations when people have access to clear instructions and avenues for support that they can trust. Kara adds, “We have to make sure the people who are most likely to be affected by this crime understand their rights and feel like they have access to justice. And right now, they don’t.”

Here are some of the resources that are available to people experiencing labor trafficking in Colorado: 

  • Our 24/7 Human Trafficking Hotline is staffed around the clock by volunteer advocates who connect callers and texters with the resources in Colorado that are available. Get in touch to report a tip or get the help you need. Call 866-455-5075 or text 720-999-9724.
  • Colorado Legal Services helps low-income Coloradans and Seniors with civil legal issues.
  • When a foreign national is identified as being a victim of trafficking, they are entitled to the benefits provided to refugees and asylees and can apply for a T-visa.
  • The Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMAIN) serves low-income men, women, and children in immigration proceedings.

If you or someone you know might be experiencing exploitation, call Colorado’s 24/7 Human Trafficking Hotline. Report a tip or get the help you need. Call 866-455-5075 or text 720-999-9724. Our trained advocates are ready to support you.