Labor in the Shadow of the Law

In Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States, Associate Professor Denise Brennan follows the lives of formerly trafficked men and women. Photo by Melissa Nyman.

August 4, 2014—Each day, millions of people in the United States labor in the shadow of the law. In Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States, Associate Professor Denise Brennan examines the stories of former victims to show how trafficking persists and what we can do to help individuals rebuild their lives.

Brennan, chair of the anthropology department, has spent ten years collecting research about men and women who have received T Non Immigrant Status visas (T-visas), which are set aside specifically for trafficking victims in the United States. Each year, the United States can offer up to 5,000 T-visas, and yet, only 4,000 of these visas have been granted in the last 14 years. A number of problems—from the term “trafficking” to conflicting government policies—has led to a misunderstanding of trafficking and the needs of its victims.

The term “trafficking,” Brennan admits, is confusing. It is often conflated with only sex trafficking and often confused with smuggling, the act of illegally bringing workers into the country. Trafficking refers to people who work (paid or unpaid) under “force, fraud, or coercion,” according to the Trafficking and Victims Protection Act. But Brennan is also concerned about the millions of migrant workers who work in “rampant and unfettered exploitation.”

In her research, Brennan found that trafficking victims work in a variety of labor sectors and come from many different social classes. “These are migrants—some without documentation and some with visas—in labor sectors that undergird our economy,” she explained. Without these migrants, some industries, like agriculture, would simply not have enough workers. But providing help to migrant workers, some of whom might be here illegally, “is a thorny political issue,” she continued. “It’s politically palatable to provide relief for the exceptional few.”

Forced labor takes many forms, and subjective perceptions of coercion make it difficult for victims to prove trafficking claims. During her interviews, Brennan met domestic workers whose passports were confiscated and were told not to contact anyone. One employer at a mushroom packing plant posted signs of a boot squashing an ant after workers complained about dirty restrooms. She has also heard of employers requiring people to pay a fee in order to be rehired.

Migrants are vulnerable, Brennan says, because employers often isolate workers, preventing them from gaining knowledge about their rights. And when these kinds of conditions are prevalent across an industry, some workers do not see the magnitude of the abuse.

“People who experience abuse on the job, whether they have a guest work visa or they are here without papers, they are not likely to report abuse in this era of deportations,” Brennan said, referring to the two million deportations that have occurred during the Obama administration. “Our anti-trafficking efforts have been hampered by our laws seeking out undocumented migrants.”

Once people escape a trafficking situation, they still face a difficult life. Most former victims scramble to find immediate housing and often end up homeless shelters. Brennan found that many were still struggling to make ends meet when their visa benefits ended. Even after receiving a T-visa and benefits as trafficking victims, “these are individuals who by and large are living on poverty’s edge,” Brennan explained.

Brennan recommends more housing options and long-term benefits for T-visa recipients, in addition to the potential for scholarships and education. Creating more opportunities for education and peer-to-peer advocacy is “the front line of anti-trafficking work,” she said.

“I’ve been blown away at how courageous people are to risk organizing in work sites where they could get fired or have their employers call ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement].”

Brennan hopes that ending separate conversations about immigration, workers’ rights, and trafficking will also allow for more progress and discussion about these complicated and interrelated issues.

“If you want to fight trafficking, you need to fight for workers’ rights,” she explained.

—Elizabeth Wilson 

More from Denise Brennan

Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States is available through the Duke University Press; click here to read an excerpt from the book. All royalties from the book will be donated to the Survivors Leadership Training Fund, administered through the Freedom Network. Learn more about labor trafficking at Denise Brennan’s website.