Human Smuggling and Trafficking

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Editor: Michael Shally-Jensen
Date: 2011
Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Social Issues
From: Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Social Issues(Vol. 2: Criminal Justice. )
Publisher: ABC-Clio
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 10
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Human Smuggling and Trafficking

The concerns about illegal immigration expressed in the popular media, such as television news shows and talk radio programs, can be misleading. These shows often overlook the factors underlying migration and disregard the jeopardy that migrants face in dealing with the smugglers who bring them across the border or the traffickers who enslave them. Despite the dangers involved, many undocumented migrants come to the United States to look for work or to join their families, hoping to settle permanently. Others, entering the country under even less favorable circumstances, come at the hands of human traffickers. Human smugglers and traffickers are international criminals. Nevertheless, it is not surprising that as border-enforcement efforts continue to raise the stakes for both migrants and smugglers/traffickers, incidents of coercion and predation will increase in number and intensify in degree.

Although persons smuggled into the country most often are looking for work, women and children are trafficked both into the United States and internationally for the purpose of forced prostitution and enslavement. Of necessity, this is a process involving trickery and coercion. The United States has responded by passing legislation and directing efforts toward international cooperation. This legislation may represent a good faith effort on the part of lawmakers, but efforts on the ground to stop the massive problem of human smuggling and trafficking have produced mixed results.

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The process of globalization has minimized the impact of the distance between communities across the world. Although global migration is not new, the speed with which it is occurring and the shifting dynamics are. Why do people migrate? Their reasons may include finding a job, reunifying family, getting married, or fulfilling the demand for labor by migrants. Nevertheless, in some cases migrants lose control and are maneuvered into criminal activities or enslavement under conditions of coercion by smugglers or traffickers. Those who are categorized as undocumented immigrants are welcomed as cheap and dispensable labor but refused permanent legal resident status. This makes modern migrants from countries that are considered the global south (developing nations), particularly women and children from these countries, vulnerable to criminals.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the gender dynamics of global migration have shifted. Since 1970, the migration of women has increased on a global scale in a phenomenon referred to as the feminization of migration. Although women have yet to earn equal hourly wages in most countries, including the United States, they now constitute 50 percent of the world's migrants. Women migrants are impacted by the creation of binary categories that have developed to label migration as either coerced (trafficked) or voluntary (smuggled). Such simple polarizations of migration are insufficient to describe the nature of the migration process and the vulnerability of women to human traffickers.

The U.S. West Coast has a deeply embedded migratory relationship with Latin America—one that generates racialized (race-based) perceptions of human trafficking and smuggling. Americans stereotype Mexico and Latin America as regions involved in smuggling; they assume that the United States has little or no criminal involvement. The experiences of those involved, however, reveal a complex picture of interlinkage between countries of the so-called global north (industrialized nations) and the global south.

Human Smuggling

Undocumented migrants cross U.S. national borders without a border-crossing identification card. These cards are issued by U.S. consulates to visitors for tourism or business, temporary workers, and refugees. These cards are denied to individuals who cannot establish sufficient financial means or pass the security check required of entrants from countries designated as places that harbor terrorists.

The United States has the largest and most diverse flow of undocumented workers among the developing nations. Undocumented Mexicans, Central Americans, and other Latin American workers are employed in agriculture, manufacturing, and the service sector, including jobs ranging from maids to waiters. This is a historical process that began as early as the 1940s, when the United States implemented the Bracero program to legally bring migrant workers into the United States. Today, although many foreign-born individuals are admitted as legal immigrants, a substantial number enter Page 517  |  Top of Articleas undocumented migrants, often assisted by smugglers. They may stay for a period of time and then return to their country of origin, or they may remain permanently as unauthorized immigrants. Although people who are smuggled enter the United States illegally, they often face the additional risk of being “trafficked” for nefarious purposes. A migrant who seeks to enter voluntarily but is coerced into forced prostitution or enslaved to perform labor has been trafficked by organized crime.

Since 9/11, protection of the U.S. border has been a key focus of U.S. national security. One goal of the U.S. Border Patrol is to combat human smuggling and human trafficking. However, even as U.S. borders have been tightened, immigrants looking for employment opportunities continue to enter the United States from Latin America. A 2008 Pew Hispanic Center survey showed that the number of illegal immigrants entering the United States had declined from an average of 800,000 per year in 2000-2004 to 500,000 per year in 2005-2008. U.S immigrants are racially and ethnically diverse, but the mass media tend to focus on antismuggling initiatives aimed at Latin Americans coming through the southern U.S. border. In San Diego, California, and other major crossing points, large-scale crackdowns on human smuggling rings occasionally take place. Employers in the agricultural and service sectors, in particular, cautiously welcome unauthorized immigrants, but the tightening of U.S. borders and the arrest of migrant laborers and smugglers have made employers’ access to such cheap labor more difficult.

Human Smuggling and Coercion

It is often assumed that those who are smuggled across national boundaries undertake the journey of their own free will; they are neither coerced into acting nor deceived in any significant way because they have entered into contracts or paid for the service. Those who are smuggled are grouped with other, voluntary migrants who come to pursue economic opportunities (economic migration) or to be reunited with their families.

Human smuggling is the facilitation, transportation, attempted transportation, or illegal entry of a person or persons across an international border through deception, as through the use of fraudulent documents or by other means involving no identification. Definitions of smuggling in U.S. policy suggest that the person being smuggled is cooperating with the smuggler. These definitions do not fully take account of actual or implied coercion and consider that the illegal entry of one person is being facilitated by another (or more than one). The use of this notion of cooperation, however, is debatable, as often some element of coercion or deception is involved.

Although the U.S. public focuses on the smuggling of Mexican and, to a lesser extent, Central American and Latin American undocumented immigrants, this is just part of a much larger picture. Smuggling cannot be understood in a vacuum because it is a complex transnational phenomenon. It is not only a U.S. reality but a global one. Human smuggling is not limited to the United States, although the United States has the largest Page 518  |  Top of Articlenumber of unauthorized immigrants. Other countries that have been and remain major destinations include Germany, Canada, and Australia.

Human smuggling is the process of bringing in unauthorized entrants. According to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Act, it is a felony for a smuggler and a civil offense (at least for the first incident) for a migrant to engage in this activity. The methods of smuggling include self-smuggling, smuggling by professional organizations/networks, and smuggling by independent entrepreneurs known as coyotes in the case of Latin American emigration or snakeheads in the case of Asian emigration. This criminal activity is very profitable. In the first decade of the 21st century, a Chinese migrant might pay from $25,000 to $30,000 to attempt unauthorized entry to the United States. The smuggling fee itself places international migrants into a coercive situation because of the length of time it takes for a person and relatives from a developing country to pay off such a debt. If payment is delayed, relatives in the country of origin may be threatened.

Human smuggling involves high risks for both smugglers and migrants. A coyote—also known as a pollero—is a person paid to smuggle a migrant from Mexico, Central America (including El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), or Latin America across the U.S.-Mexico border. Coyotes are despised by some on both sides of the border for profiting from migrants. As the borders have become increasingly militarized, dependency on smugglers has increased, and smugglers are able to coerce ever larger payments from undocumented immigrants. Coercion becomes intensified when smugglers connected to drug traffickers ask immigrants to carry in marijuana or other drugs as part of their fee. Coercion has also increased because urban border enforcement has increasingly pushed migrants to cross in more remote and often more dangerous areas, requiring that they push themselves beyond their normal limits. Environmental factors, such as summer heat exposure in the Arizona desert, can cause serious physical harm and even death. In some cases smugglers abandon incapacitated members of a group, who can only hope that a U.S. Border Patrol officer will find them before dehydration, heat stroke, and starvation end their lives. Others risk suffocation while hidden in the backs of trucks.

Undocumented smuggling of Asian emigrants has historically utilized maritime routes and received relatively less media attention. Maritime smuggling has been associated with the rape of women migrants, malnourishment, and unhealthy conditions of concealment. Snakeheads smuggling Chinese into the United States are reported to have stopped using maritime routes through Seattle, Washington. The new route is by air. One positive, indirect consequence of this change is a reduction of exposure to harm owing to the short duration of attempted entry. In 2004, the United Nations Convention signed the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Air, and Sea Protocol at its Vienna meeting to control human smuggling, trafficking, and transnational organized crime.

Global smuggling networks include a wide variety of source countries and routes, including the often neglected Canadian border. Cases of human smuggling through Page 519  |  Top of ArticleCanada from Asia and Eastern Europe were highlighted during a 2006 indictment in Detroit, Michigan, which revealed that undocumented migrants sometimes rode inside or held onto the sides of freight trains traveling through rail tunnels or were smuggled in ferries, car trunks, the cargo trailers of semi trucks, and, in some cases, small boats. Even in such instances coercion can be involved, the migrants sometimes being unaware of what is expected of them until the time of the crossing.

Regardless of how much is paid and where migrants are from, the end result is the same: migrants who are smuggled into a country reach their destination only if they survive the process. In 2000, more than 100 Chinese were found hiding in several ships in U.S. and Canadian ports, including three who arrived dead in a cargo ship called the Cape May; they died of malnutrition and dehydration. Migrants contracting with human smugglers must deal with fear as well as the risk of death.

Forced Migration

Forced migration—or the flight of refugees and displaced individuals fleeing ethnic cleansing, political conflict, famine, and other traumatic situations—often involves a degree of coercion. It is most often a situation of political coercion but is sometimes due to traumatic necessity. Displaced people around the globe are diverse but they have all been affected by economic and political turmoil in their home countries. A displaced person is often a refugee or asylum seeker.


Refugees are, by definition, individuals who, because of a conflict involving the nation-state in which they live, are forced to flee. This type of forced migration is especially severe when entire groups face persecution on the basis of their ethnicity. The legal concept of a refugee was created in 1951, when a Refugee Convention formulated by a United Nations Conference on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons was adopted. Individuals protected under the category of refugee flee their countries because of persecution or conflict. Their primary international oversight organization is the United Nations’ High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), which was developed in conjunction with the UN protocol to protect, assist, and provide monetary support for refugees.

Central American Refugees

Mexican, Central American, and Latin American migration has been treated as something that is freely motivated, as compared with migrations from Asia or Africa. This has created controversy, because the United States was involved in covert warfare in Central America during the 1980s and chose to treat displaced individuals and families as economic migrants rather than refugees. Immigrant advocates in the United States took up these migrants’ cause by documenting the existence of death squads and other Page 520  |  Top of Articlepolitical persecution during the Central American civil wars. As a result, there have been several periods of legalization of Central Americans in the United States resulting from judicial decisions. Currently, Latin America is not considered a major region producing forced migration.

Human Trafficking

Trafficking in persons has been defined as the modern-day form of slavery and is perhaps among the most profitable transnational crimes next to the sale of drugs and arms. This transnational crime has been subject to international and national attention. Publicity and human rights advocacy has helped pave the way for the creation of international and national laws to stop the sale and enslavement of persons. However, controversy exists over the extent of the protection these laws provide, especially the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000 (VTVPA), a law drafted and implemented by the United States. Because a significant number of persons who are trafficked become vulnerable victims of this crime owing to grim economic circumstances in their native countries, controversy also exists over the extent to which victims contribute to their own victimization and whether the United States should provide any legal protection for them. Opposing views focus on the extent to which the law should protect victims (such as prostitutes, sex workers, and agricultural workers) who might initially have agreed to be transported across national or international borders in order to find employment and then became enslaved.

Defining the Problem

Trafficking in persons has a broad definition. The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons (the Palermo Protocol), which is the leading and most recent international legislation to stop the sale and enslavement of persons, defines human trafficking in persons as

The action of: recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring, or receiving persons

By means of: the threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim

For the purpose of: exploitation, which includes exploiting the prostitution of others, sexual exploitation, forced labor, slavery or similar practices, and the removal of organs.

Using the international definition as a foundation, the U.S. Congress adopted the VTVPA, which is the leading U.S. law against trafficking. This law categorizes human trafficking into two primary components: sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Both types of trafficking are defined as involving the recruitment, harboring, transportation, Page 521  |  Top of Articleprovision, or obtaining of a person. Sex trafficking is for the purpose of initiating a commercial sex act by force, fraud, or coercion; the law particularly focuses on sex trafficked individuals who are below 18 years of age, specifying even greater penalties in such cases. Labor trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to subject a person to labor under conditions of involuntary servitude, peonage (debt bondage, often to work off a smuggling fee), or slavery.

Human trafficking can also be understood within the context of the methods and/or activities of the trafficker(s)—those who actively engage in the sale and enslavement of persons. The trafficker usually recruits persons, either adults or children, to be sold into slavery. Recruitment generally involves some form of deception or fraud, such as lying about finding and/or providing legitimate employment for the recruited. Recruitment can also involve the abduction of persons. The trafficker then needs to make the transaction or sale of the person in exchange for money or another service. This usually involves transporting a person to a specific destination. Finally, the receipt or transfer of the person to the paying customer or client must be made. The threat or use of force or any other means of coercion is present throughout all phases of the sale. Additionally, once the transfer to the paying customer has been made, the trafficked person is further exploited by being forced to work as a prostitute, agricultural worker, domestic servant, or anything else against her or his will. Although human trafficking may not necessarily involve the sale, transportation, or transfer of a person across international borders, victims of this crime are usually sold on an international scale, human trafficking must be classified as a transnational crime.

The Scope and Nature of Human Trafficking

Although since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s the sale of drugs and arms have become the most profitable transnational crimes, human trafficking remains well known in the 21st century. Today, it is estimated that 21 million people are victims of human trafficking. In the United States alone, government estimates indicate that between 600,000 and 800,000 individuals are victims of trafficking each year. One of the reasons for this is that the sale of human beings is highly profitable. In fact, it is estimated to be the third most profitable international crime next to the sale of weapons and drugs. The profits of the global human trafficking enterprise are estimated at $7 billion to $10 billion a year. Other reasons for its prevalence may be the belief (of the traffickers) that there is a relatively low risk of being apprehended and punished. Law enforcement's preoccupation with stopping the sale of weapons and drugs leaves criminals with the impression that human trafficking laws will not be enforced and that their chances of being arrested and incarcerated are minimal at best. This false sense of security also drives the willingness of traffickers to continue their work.

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Human trafficking results in a form of slave labor or involuntary servitude. It is a venture that thrives on the exploitation of humans for financial or economic reasons. In fact, one could argue that human trafficking is a more profitable business than other transnational crimes, such as arms trafficking or drug smuggling, because humans can be sold over and over again. Thus, unlike drugs and arms, which are usually sold to only one customer for a one-time profit, humans can be resold to different customers and sold numerous times for an exponential amount of profit. Typically, victims of human trafficking are sold and enslaved to perform a variety of jobs, the most common of which involves working in some capacity in the sex industry as a prostitute or exotic entertainer. This is the case for most women and children.

Children are often trafficking victims of sex tourism operations. Sex tourism or child sex tourism occurs when people of one country, usually because of the strict enforcement of human trafficking laws, travel to a foreign location for sexual gratification. They travel with the knowledge the government of the country being visited is unwilling or unable to enforce laws against trafficking or prostitution. Such child sex tourism has been thriving in Mexico and Latin America. Children are also used as camel jockeys (camel riders in races) in some countries or forced to work as domestic servants or in sweatshops.

In most cases, victims of human trafficking are forced to do various kinds of jobs because the traffickers insist that they must pay an impending debt—money ostensibly used by the trafficker to purchase fraudulent travel documents or pay for travel expenses. Essentially, the traffickers create a situation of debt bondage where the victims must provide services to earn their freedom. However, freedom is rarely a possibility because the trafficker is constantly adding to the debt. Overinflated living expenses, medical expenses, and other expenses, including the trafficker's commission, keep the victim from earning her or his freedom.

There are some who wonder why victims do not attempt to escape their captors and why they choose to remain enslaved. The answer is actually quite simple. Victims do not choose to remain enslaved and they do not attempt to escape for fear of harm to themselves or their families. Victims are continuously warned that if they try to flee or call the authorities, they will be killed. Harm to family members is also threatened. The psychological abuse of constantly fearing for one's life or the lives of loved ones is enough to cripple any attempts to escape.

Psychological manipulation at the hands of the traffickers is not the only factor that keeps victims from escaping. Most victims fear that they will be arrested, since most are without legal documents or authorization. What makes matters worse is that travel visas, even if fraudulent, are taken from the victims as soon as they reach their place of destination. Fear of arrest for violating immigration laws keeps victims from contacting authorities. Physical abuse is also a factor that keeps victims from escaping. In addition, constant supervision by their captors makes it virtually impossible for these people to attempt an escape.

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Current Efforts to End Trafficking

The international community has been tackling the problem of human trafficking since the early 1900s, when a 1904 international treaty banned trafficking in white women for prostitution—the so-called white slave trade. In the mid-20th century, further international treaties were created to address this problem. For instance, in 1949, the United Nations, of which the United States is a member, signed an international treaty to suppress the sale of humans. More recently, in 2000, a total of 148 countries were signatories to an international treaty to prevent, suppress, and punish those who traffic in persons. This international treaty, known as the Palermo Protocol because it was signed by the various nations in Palermo, Italy, makes it a crime to recruit, transfer, harbor, or purchase a person for the purpose of any type of exploitation. It also makes the sale of organs a crime. The Palermo Protocol considers a victim's consent irrelevant, meaning that any person who is abducted, deceived, forced, or suffers other forms of coercion or initially agrees to be transported across borders shall be treated as a victim if she or he suffers any form of exploitation. The victims shall receive help to return to their country or city of origin and shall receive any medical, legal, or psychological assistance needed.


Human smuggling and trafficking have come to be two of the most profitable transnational crimes. Their profitability is highly dependent on a steady flow of desperate, vulnerable, and exploitable persons and a steady supply of customers in the United States willing and able to benefit from such transactions. Like other economic ventures, human smuggling and trafficking thrive from the supply of seekers and victims and the demand for them. These phenomena are thus significantly affected by global factors, such as economic and political instability, both of which are effects of globalization. Although globalization has certainly helped make the transport and/or sale of humans the transnational enterprises that they are, human smuggling and trafficking have extensive histories. Both flourished despite early- and mid-20th-century agreements and laws to control their spread. Today, both have once again captured the attention of the world and become high law enforcement priorities for the United States. Perhaps they have become so in part because the United States is a prime destination country both for illegal migrants and victims of trafficking.

Claudia San Miguel and Annie Fukushima

Further Reading

Bales, Kevin, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

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Batstone, David, Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade, and How We Can Fight It. New York: HarperOne, 2007.

DeStefano, Anthony M., The War on Human Trafficking: U.S. Policy Assessed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

Gaynor, Tim, Midnight on the Line: The Secret Life of the U.S.-Mexico Border. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2009.

Kyle, David, and Rey Koslowski, eds., Global Human Smuggling: Comparative Perspectives. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Ngai, Mai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Payan, Tim, The Three U.S-Mexico Border Wars: Drugs, Immigration, and Homeland Security. Westport, CT Praeger, 2006.

Skinner, E. Benjamin, A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery. New York: Free Press, 2009.

Zhang, Sheldon X., Smuggling and Trafficking in Human Beings: All Roads Lead to the United States. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1762600066