Migrant Crossings
Witnessing Human Trafficking in the U.S.
Annie Isabel Fukushima



IN 2017 I was called upon by a local organization in California to examine cases of youth who had been trafficked into the United States. The goal was to examine the cases for human trafficking and provide expert reports to supplement their cases for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and asylum officers. Some of the youths’ cases went back as far as 2014, and involved children from south of the U.S. border—migrating across the U.S.-Mexican border from countries like Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala—being treated as criminals and therefore deportable. Debates surrounding expedited removals circulated, in spite of story upon story of persecution, violence, and human trafficking. The youth cases spoke to dominant ideologies and misplaced anxiety surrounding the stereotype of the “hordes” of migrants entering the United States, in spite of trends showing that migration from countries like Mexico was at a net zero.1 As migrant children and their families attempted to enter the United States through the border, policymakers were quick to criminalize the migrants, alleging visa fraud for the trafficking visa.2 Anti-traffickers and policymakers debated the (mis)perceptions of the visibility of migrant children, exposing the gaps in U.S. immigration policy and practice. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that, based on four hundred interviews, 48 percent of children crossing the U.S.-Mexican border experienced violence or threats by organized crime groups and 22 percent experienced violence in the home or by their caretakers.3 In spite of the perception of “illegal” migration, victim witnesses—survivors of border violence, from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico—told a more complex story.4 While headlines focused on migrant children who were released to traffickers, others, like Saul from Honduras, illuminated experiences of being trafficked as they made their way to the United States.5 Saul’s story is found in a statement released by the Freedom Network USA in August 2014—a response to the discourse surrounding undocumented children. Saul’s story is as follows:

Saul grew up in a gang-infested neighborhood in Honduras. For several years, the local gang tried to forcibly recruit Saul. They beat him, threw battery acid on him, and threatened to kill him. One day, when Saul was walking with a female friend, the gang attacked them. Gang members beat Saul and raped his friend. Saul knew that if he did not join the gang, they would kill him. Saul begged his mother, who was in the United States, to send for him, since there was nowhere safe for him in Honduras. When Saul was 15 years old, Saul’s mother finally was able to arrange for a man to bring Saul to the United States. However, before reaching the border, Saul was captured and trafficked in Mexico by armed men. His traffickers took him to a hotel room where he was kept for a couple of weeks. Saul’s traffickers then forced him to carry a backpack with drugs across the border. Threatened with his life, Saul had no choice but to smuggle the backpack across the border for his traffickers. Saul was finally able to escape his traffickers when they were apprehended by CBP in Texas. Terrified, Saul reported what had happened to him to CBP and the FBI. Saul was detained at a detention center in Brownsville and later a shelter until he could be reunited with his mother in Los Angeles. Once in Los Angeles, CAST helped Saul get the services he needed to overcome the trauma of his experience. With CAST’s help, Saul was able to see a therapist to address his nightmares. CAST also helped Saul apply for, and receive, a T visa. Today, Saul is entering the 12th grade, where he is a student leader with dreams of becoming a child-psychologist. Even though he is now flourishing, Saul still fears returning to Honduras, where gang members recently murdered his cousin.6

Stories like Saul’s provide the everyday person with a sense of intimacy and insight into trafficking experiences, where anti-traffickers consider migrants to be trafficked people; therefore, such migrants may receive immigration relief in the form of a T-Visa. As Saul is identified as someone who is in need of immigration relief, he is also a reminder of those whose entry is denied due to the larger national discourse surrounding legality and migration.7 In an effort to name migrant crossings through frames of victimhood and vulnerability, anti-trafficking practitioners reinforce heteronormative notions of exploitation by which boys are portrayed as labor exploited and girls as sexually exploited. While sexual violence on the border is a reality, Saul’s labor story reinforces paternalistic ideologies and practices defining the anti-trafficking movement. Stories of danger and protection are central to human rights appeals—Saul, a victim from the Global South, contrasts with his rescuers from the United States, in the Global North. Organizations utilize these human rights modes—at congressional hearings, in the news, on their websites, in lobbying efforts, through fundraisers, and in the everyday—as a means to create a picture that This is human trafficking or This is abuse. While Saul offers a complex example of what it means to cross into visibility as a trafficking subject, his story, like the multiple case studies that appear in Migrant Crossings, offers lessons on the power to include/exclude through notions of legality, victimhood, and citizenship.

In Migrant Crossings, I therefore answer multiple questions: How do migrants like Saul cross into visibility in ways that enable their inclusion? Is this inclusion dependent on being seen as “victim”? Who is seen as “illegal,” “criminal,” and even deportable? What is the consequence of witnessing transnational migration through normative views? More specifically, how does a migrant cross into visibility as a trafficking subject? What are the subjectivities migrants are bound to that shape their visibility as trafficked persons? What sort of witnessing is required for the witness to see beyond the dualities that construct trafficking subjectivities? By answering these questions about migration, gender, and race, this book contributes to a range of fields of study, including women’s studies/feminist studies, critical race and ethnic studies, sexuality studies, labor studies, and sociology. My goal in the book is not to recover more trafficking stories. Instead, I invite the reader to embark on a practice of witnessing that bridges theory and practice—an ethnic studies praxis. I hope to facilitate a theory and practice of witnessing how migrants cross into visibility legally, through frames of citizenship, and through narratives of victimhood. In Migrant Crossings I take the reader through an interdisciplinary framing of the role of the law and the legal system, the notion of perfect victimhood and iconic victims, and how trafficking subjects are resurrected for contemporary movements as illustrated in visuals, discourse, court records, and policy.8 All of these conditions collectively reinforce human trafficking as determined by notions of victimhood, legality, and citizenship. However, to understand human trafficking beyond carceral feminist appeals, and beyond a criminal justice approach that views incarcerating traffickers as the ultimate and ideal solution for addressing gender-based violence, I center anti-racist, decolonial, and transnational feminist theories.

This project is timely—immigration is a twenty-first century issue. Saul’s narrative circulated during a time when organizations appealed to the public and called on policymakers to see the victimhood in the transnational migrant experience during the Obama administration. By 2014, the Obama administration was known not only for having deported a record number of people but also for having implemented the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. According to this program, first implemented in 2012, individuals who had come to the United States before they were sixteen years old, and had continuously resided, could request that action against them be deferred for two years.9 However, the program was challenged in 2017 under the Trump administration. As illustrated in Chapter 2, multiple legal events have shaped the current moment surrounding immigration, labor, and sexual economies. A persistent narrative in the twenty-first century is how migrants experience both welcome and rejection. This is illuminated in recent policy events in the United States. On March 6, 2017, the Trump administration signed Executive Order 13759: Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States, increasing border security, limiting asylum, and increasing enforcement. As illuminated in New York, homeland security agents—from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—have shown up to the human trafficking courts.10 The argument made by U.S. law enforcement officials regarding their unannounced appearances was to detain immigrants who are criminalized and to recruit victim witnesses. Migrants are relegated to a precarious status of uncertainty that is tied to perceptions of their being a threat to U.S. citizenry in general. As explored by Judith Butler, the conditions of precarity encompasses “when a population appears as a direct threat to my life, they do not appear as ‘lives,’ but as the threat to life.”11 The treatment of immigrants in the twenty-first century is bound to narratives of migrants themselves as an economic, social, and political threat. No migratory group is untouched by twenty-first-century U.S. discourse and practice, which perpetuate the myth that migrants are dangerous. Under the Trump administration the signing of executive orders12 and the discourse on immigration have had material consequences: asylum seekers applying for immigration relief have encountered increased restrictions; the securitization of borders requires undocumented migrants to cross them in even more dangerous terrain; and the number of individuals in detention continues to rise (although, enforcement is more unpredictable during the Trump administration).13 Multiple witnesses—migrants and others, such as attorneys and social service providers—attest to the challenging climate migrants face in seeking jobs and finding a new place to call home. In 2018, the Coalition Against Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), Freedom Network USA, and the Polaris Project conducted a preliminary survey of 147 individuals representing social service providers, advocates, and attorneys. The consequence of not grappling with immigration and human trafficking is clear: survivors are reluctant to report being victims of crime due to fears of deportation, and traffickers depend on anti-immigration sentiment to compel survivors to stay in abusive conditions and to control migrants (see Figure 1). Migrant Crossings therefore contributes to a larger debate about what it means to witness migration in these migratory times—and what such crossings mean for subjects who experience violence during or after their crossing, a violence that some would call human trafficking.

Human trafficking is a familiar topic in the twenty-first century, a story that the public is called to witness in the media, in filmic representations, and in cultural representations such as art, floral and museum installations, paintings, photography, performance, and public exhibits.14 The witnesses to human trafficking are multiple—law enforcement officers, social workers, medical professionals, advocates, community members, attorneys, educators, and even the everyday Good Samaritan. Such individuals are not simply spectators of violence; witnesses are called to action. The actions of the witness reproduce dominant ideologies about “perfect victimhood,” citizenship, and legality, ideologies that become codified and reified in the courtroom, by social services, and in everyday interactions with trafficking subjects. Anti-trafficker mobilizations creating visibility of human trafficking are more than their individual actors—they are a movement.

In Migrant Crossings, I am committed to unveiling the contradictions shaping the lives of migrants who experience violence. Take, for example, Rigoberto Valle. In 2009, Valle’s case exposed the contradictions in California law. Valle’s trafficking allegations did not lead to his being witnessed as a sympathetic victim in the legal system, in spite of his testimonial that the “coyotes who brought him to San Francisco had demanded $500 for his passage from Phoenix and ordered him—at the point of a gun and then a knife—to earn it by dealing crack. The sum was on top of the $1,500 his family had paid the smugglers to get across the border.”15 Valle’s defense attorney argued that Valle was a “victim.” After being smuggled into the United States, he had had the option to sell drugs or “be killed.” Before selling drugs in San Francisco, Valle had been locked up for three days, at which point he “was quite literally in fear for his life.”16 However, in spite of the allegations of victimhood, the assistant district attorney from the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, Richard Hechler, argued in his closing statement, “He may or may not have been trafficked. That’s not the issue. The issue is, did he commit a crime?”17 Unlike Saul, Valle’s victimhood could not supersede his criminality. Cases like Valle’s and Saul’s are part of the repertoire of stories that circulate about human trafficking, whereby some cases are seen as human trafficking, and others are relegated to the status of quasi-human trafficking or invisible forms of human trafficking. The consequence for migrants like Valle is incarceration and deportation. But what is human trafficking?

FIGURE 1. “Quotes.”
Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking, Freedom Network USA, and the Polaris Project. 2018. 2017 Social Service, Advocate and Legal Service Survey Regarding Immigrant Survivors of Human Trafficking.


1. Ana Gonzalez-Barrera and Jens Manuel Krogstad, “What We Know About Illegal Immigration from Mexico,” Pew Research Center, March 2, 2017, accessed August 12, 2018, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/20/what-we-know-about-illegal-immigration-from-mexico/.

2. C. Gallagher, “Adolescents and the Border Crisis: Unaccompanied Alien Children and Child Trafficking” (IOFA talk, 2014), accessed March 15, 2016, http://freedomnetworkusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/UAC-blog-series.pdf.

3. Muzaffar Chishti, Faye Hipsman Muzaffar Chishti, and Faye Hipsman, “Dramatic Surge in the Arrival of Unaccompanied Children Has Deep Roots and No Simple Solutions,” Migrationpolicy.org, March 2, 2017, accessed August 12, 2018, http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/dramatic-surge-arrival-unaccompanied-children-has-deep-roots-and-no-simple-solutions.

4. “The Freedom Network’s Response to the Current Influx of Unaccompanied Children at the US-Mexico Border,” Freedom Network USA, August 2014, accessed September 15, 2018, http://freedomnetworkusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/FN-Statement-on-UACs.pdf.

5. Emmarie E. Huetteman, “U.S. Placed Immigrant Children with Traffickers, Report Says,” New York Times, December 21, 2017, accessed August 12, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/29/us/politics/us-placed-immigrant-children-with-traffickers-report-says.html.

6. Ibid.

7. See Luibhéid 2002.

8. In Chapter 3, I provide a conceptualization of perfect victimhood and iconic victimhood status. Such notions of victimhood are predicated on binary assumptions of underserving victims versus those whose victimization is imperceptible to a public.

9. Homeland Security, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), https://www.dhs.gov/deferred-action-childhood-arrivals-daca.

10. B. Fertig, “When ICE Shows Up in Human Trafficking Court,” WNYC, June 22, 2017, accessed April 12, 2018, https://www.wnyc.org/story/when-ice-shows-court/.

11. Butler 2009, p. 31.

12. For example, Executive Order 13759: Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States (signed January 27, 2017) suspended the entry of migrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somali, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen for ninety days. Executive Order 13780 replaced Executive Order 13759, requiring not only extreme vetting but also restrictions of migrants from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Executive Order 13767: Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements (signed January 25, 2017) called for the immediate repatriation of undocumented migrants.

13. Randy Capps et al., “Revving Up the Deportation Machinery: Enforcement Under Trump and the Pushback,” Migrationpolicy.org, July 03, 2018, accessed August 12, 2018, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/revving-deportation-machinery-under-trump-and-pushback; Peter Slevin, “Deportation of Illegal Immigrants Increases Under Obama Administration,” Washington Post, July 26, 2010, accessed March 1, 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/25/AR2010072501790.html.

14. See “Human Trafficking in the Media” and “Culture (Art/Literature)” in the Bibliography.

15. Jaxon van Derbeken, “S.F.’s ‘Sell Crack or Die’ Defendant Convicted,” SFGate, February 11, 2012, accessed August 12, 2018, http://www.sfgate.com/crime/article/S-F-s-sell-crack-or-die-defendant-convicted-3286004.php.

16. Jaxon van Derbeken, “S.F. Crack Case Highlights Immigration Dilemma,” SFGate, February 10, 2012, accessed July 10, 2017, http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/S-F-crack-case-highlights-immigration-dilemma-3217501.php.

17. See Fukushima and Liou 2012.