Conversation

Kathleen Kim on Trafficking

Photo by Jon Rou

People are being trafficked to the cities, towns, businesses and farms every day. Kathleen Kim, professor of law at Loyola Law School and an expert on immigration and human trafficking, discusses human trafficking in the United States. She was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.

What are the primary destinations of trafficked people who enter the United States?
It’s difficult to do accurate research on this subject, but it is believed among experts to be concentrated in significant ports of entry, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York. From my experience of working in California on trafficking for 15 years, I can say that Los Angeles is a primary destination.

How do people arrive at those locations?
People may fly in. They may have immigration authorization to enter — a tourist visa or a temporary worker visa. Those visas may or may not have been facilitated by a smuggler or a trafficker. And it’s only after that individual enters and ends up in a workplace that has forced labor conditions that the situation becomes one of trafficking. Other people may come into the United States overland. I’ve had clients who come up from the southern border by foot or vehicle, or from the Canadian border, and eventually end up in Los Angeles.

Are trafficked people who are non-citizens mainly lured to the United States, where they are forced into labor, or do they arrive here already having fallen in the hands of their exploiters?
I think it’s both. The term trafficking is somewhat misleading because it doesn’t require forced transportation by a trafficker. Individuals may migrate voluntarily from another country. They may be fleeing political and social instability in their own country or poverty. When they come here, they may be undocumented, poor and in desperate need of a job, so that makes them vulnerable to exploitation. They may end up in a workplace where the supervisor becomes increasingly abusive, even ultimately forcing or coercing them to stay in that workplace. Then that situation rises to the level of trafficking or forced labor.

What kinds of work are trafficked people forced to do?
All kinds: sex work, agricultural work, service work in hotels and restaurants, and sweatshop labor. A large percentage of trafficked people are also domestic workers and caregivers. One of the largest cases of human trafficking in the U.S. involved 500 guest workers from India forced to do construction work.

Trafficking is a global problem. What is the connection between trafficking here and around the world?
Trafficking as we know it in the United States is a result of global labor migration dynamics. The United States is the wealthiest country in the world, [while] extreme poverty exists in foreign countries. The reason why individuals want to come here is to create a better livelihood for themselves and their families. However, there are not enough safe and legal mechanisms for them to emigrate here. As a result, migrants often have to resort to risky methods of migration, which leaves them highly susceptible to being trafficked. If we take human trafficking prevention seriously, then we should think about how to craft immigration reform proposals that permit more opportunities for individuals to migrate safely here to work.

Does it make a difference that religious organizations such as the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange and the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary consider fighting trafficking an institutional mission priority?
I definitely think so. The Jesuit-Marymount mission is one [that includes] social justice. This is an issue of injustice that our community should seek to correct. When an institution gets behind a cause, there is much more potential for making an impact through the antitrafficking movement than the efforts of individuals [alone]. That speaks volumes.

View a diagram about human trafficking in the U.S.

Kathleen Kim
Kathleen Kim, professor of law at Loyola Law School, is an expert on immigration and human trafficking who studies and writes about immigration law, workplace rights, civil rights and the 13th Amendment. She is co-author of the first casebook on human trafficking, “Human Trafficking Law and Policy,” and was appointed to the Los Angeles Police Commission in 2013.
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