Immigrants are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking.

It is common for undocumented immigrants to be exploited in the U.S. Likewise, it is common for asylum seekers to be kidnapped, sexually abused and occupationally exploited on their journey to the U.S.-Mexico border.

That is why it should not be surprising to find that members of a transnational slavery ring – with operations in Central America, Mexico and the United States – were indicted in Georgia on Nov. 22.

First, “Mexico’s human-smuggling market is the largest and most sophisticated in the region, … and serves as a source and transit country, primarily to the US,” according to the Globalized Crime Index.

And second, the economic inequality between the U.S. and its Latin American neighbors has created a regional ecosystem that encourages the exploitation of migrants on journeys north.

What struck me about this case is that it was not about exploited, undocumented immigrants in the U.S. or about asylum seekers transiting through Mexico.

It was not about undocumented restaurant cooks, nightclub strippers, oilfield workers or the children and women sexually abused inside cargo trucks – the cases I am used to hearing.

Rather, it was about exploited migrants who were enrolled in the temporary farmworkers visa program, also known as H-2A.

Under this program, the employer has broad control over the pay, lodging, transportation and immigration conditions of migrants. That amount of control over vulnerable migrants tends to be abused and often goes unnoticed.

Migrants reporting exploitation practices in the agricultural sector accounted for 76% of the likely victims that called the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline from 2015 to 2018.

And it seems that human trafficking under the H-2A program increased during the pandemic.

The data also suggests that there are many more cases because many migrants fear losing their jobs and their legal status if they report their abusers.

In fact, the U.S. Department of State admitted that the government’s anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric resulted in more trafficking victims being afraid to report their cases to government officials and less likely to apply for a “T” or a “U” visa, available for victims of human trafficking and other serious crimes.

Therefore, migrant-related human trafficking flourishes and grows in the shadows created by our broken immigration system that ostracizes and marginalizes non-citizens.

That’s why the best way to combat human trafficking is to reform our immigration laws and stop the anti-immigrant rhetoric so that millions of migrants can come out of the shadows and expose the inner workings of these transnational criminal organizations.

Conversely, immigration reform needs to address the root causes of migration from Mexico and Central America to be effective.

The epicenter of human trafficking in the region is Mexico, the face of human trafficking in the U.S. is a Latino, and the business of human trafficking for criminal organizations is extremely lucrative.

In July 2020, I was informed that three dozen children, along with some of their parents, arrived at the Valle de Beraca church of Pastor Eleuterio González in Matamoros, Mexico, with callouses on their bare feet.

The “coyotes” – human smugglers in Central America – stole their shoes and forced them to hide between the wood and the sheet metal of a trailer from Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico, 1,133 miles south of Matamoros.

Some of the women were raped, and some of their fathers were used for forced labor.

The coyotes charged $3,000 – $6,000 to smuggle each of these migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border.

A year later, I met Morena (not her real name), a 25-year-old asylum seeker who traveled more than 1,400 miles to the Harlingen, Texas, airport from Huehuetenango, Guatemala, with her three-year-old son.

Morena told me that she paid $4,000 to a coyote to transport them to the U.S.-Mexico border. She also mentioned that, during her three-week trip, the traffickers stopped at two warehouses where she hid with 200 more migrants.

If the information provided by these migrants is true – which I have confirmed many times with other migrants themselves – the criminal syndicates are making millions of dollars by trafficking humans through Mexico and later crossing or locating them inside the U.S.

This explains why criminal organizations take advantage of the desperation migrants face when suffering persecution in their home countries and need to flee. It also explains why these same criminal organizations spread misinformation on social media to encourage families to make the journey north only to be exploited.

Many of those asylum seekers are then kidnapped, and their families are asked for ransom to be released.

It is a win-win for these criminal syndicates. They create the conditions that force migrants to flee, and they offer the remedy too.

They charge you to avoid killing you in your native country, and they continue to charge you and abuse you all the way to the U.S.

The tragedy of all this criminal ecosystem is that, for many of these migrants, the only way to escape persecution is to expose themselves to the dangers of human trafficking.

And trusting their lives to a coyote is the only way they can live, at least for one more day. For tomorrow will worry about itself.

Editor’s note: This article is a part of a series this week to call attention to January’s Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The other articles published in the series are:

Are We Part of the System? | Marion Carson

What You Need to Know About Sex Trafficking | Pam Strickland

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