By Prem Calvin Prashad
A chilling news story from the border has made national headlines.
A border patrol agent in Laredo, Texas, Juan David Ortiz, is accused of murdering four women over a two-week span. He was discovered after a fifth woman escaped and was able to alert authorities. All of the victims identified so far are suspected to be sex workers.
The case highlights the potential vulnerability of these women, as well as increasing doubts for the Customs and Border Patrol to vet its agents at a time when the federal government has demanded massive increases to the workforce stationed on the border.
Though there is no indication yet whether any of the victims were victims of human trafficking, trafficking is a major issue for the area. However, it is difficult to get accurate numbers on the size and scope of the problem.
Many crossing the border rely on traffickers for their routes and connections to safely make it across. Some may make it through and proceed onward to build a life in the United States, but many are forced into servitude, generally to pay back the huge sums traffickers demand.
A 2011 report from the Department of Justice indicated 2,515 cases of human trafficking from 2008–2010, 82 percent of which were suspected sex trafficking. The National Human Trafficking Hotline indicated 8,524 reported cases in 2017.
Though many trafficking victims arrive through the southern border, it is also possible to be trafficked by way of legitimate visas and simply arrive at an airport.
For instance, for labor trafficking, one may have arrived on a student visa, only to have their passport confiscated when they exit. Other trafficking victims include runaway children, who represent the bulk of minors who are trafficking around the country.
While the problem remains serious, the Trump administration wildly overreacted to the trafficking issue by seizing all children at the border, those crossing illegally, as well as those legally requesting asylum at a border crossing. Many of the parents were deported but the children remain in internment camps, despite a court order which gave the administration until July 26 to reunite families.
There is widespread suspicion that trafficking was a convenient cover to implement harsh, punitive measures against them. By the CBP’s own numbers, half of one percent of border crossings represented so-called “family fraud,” where a child was traveling with unrelated persons in order to cross the border. Arguably, by fixating on taking the children and punishing even those that legally present themselves at the border, the administration has done very little to combat actual traffickers.
Part of the reason why the problem of human trafficking is hard to quantify is that victims have to be willing and able to work with law enforcement. In many high-profile trafficking cases, especially those pertaining to live-in domestic labor, the victim’s situation was only discovered when they were able to escape.
Typically, victims of trafficking have been able to apply for a “T” visa, which provides a stay of deportation. In June, the Trump administration issued new guidelines that, upon the denial of a T visa, commences deportation proceedings.
It is notoriously difficult to prove one was a victim of trafficking, even moreso without English skills or access to a translator. For immigrant victims of sex trafficking, some are not presented with the opportunity to apply for said visa or cooperate with authorities before deportation proceeding begin, therefore sparing the trafficker to victimize others.
The case of Juan David Ortiz is certain to spread fear across region. Potential victims of trafficking are already fearful of the authorities and this case, as well as recent shootings of undocumented immigrants are certain to cause victims to remain in hiding.
Meanwhile, CBP — under pressure to recruit — runs the risk of inviting predators and others unfit to be armed and work in law enforcement. Furthermore, until the administration enhances protection for trafficked victims, including putting an end of automatic deportation proceedings, investigators will be able to make inroads in infiltrating and stopping these networks.