Trading people for prosperity-US ‘legacy of sleaze’ lives on

In this June 10, 2021 file photo, a pair of migrant families from Brazil pass through a gap in the border wall to reach the United States after crossing from Mexico to Yuma, to seek asylum. (EUGENE GARCIA, FILE / AP)

The United States State Department recently released its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, dividing countries worldwide into tiers based on how well Washington thinks they have tackled the crime.

Replete with double standards, the report blasts the human rights records of other countries while downplaying the atrocities of modern slavery at home.

But the facts speak for themselves. The US has long traded persons for its prosperity. It is a self-proclaimed "human rights defender" with a shameful "legacy of sleaze" that lives on today.

Dark heritage

The institution of slavery is widely seen as a fundamental part of the country's prosperity. From southern inland tobacco plantations to shipbuilding plants in coastal New England, US industries supported slavery and were nurtured by it for centuries.

"Out of slavery … grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power … its astonishing penchant for violence," stated The New York Times Magazine in comments in a 2019 issue marking the first enslaved Africans arriving in the British colony of Virginia in 1619.

According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, it is estimated that more than 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World from 1525 to 1866, with the 13th British colonies, later the nascent US, being a key market.

Numerous people died during the brutal maritime transport, with about 10.7 million having survived and landed in the Americas, only to be sold into slavery.

Though the country banned the importation of slaves in 1808, the growing demand for slave labor in the US cotton industry fueled the domestic slave trade. Meanwhile, cross-Atlantic trade went on covertly.

"The system proved itself so lucrative that law and legal precedent began to leave future governments leeway for prioritizing the economy over morality," stated the website of James Madison's Montpelier, a national historical landmark.

By 1850, nearly 80 percent of US exports were the product of slave labor. A decade later, the nearly 4 million slaves were worth some US$3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire US economy, said David Blight, a historian at Yale University, as quoted in an interview with The Atlantic magazine.

The American Civil War brought legal slavery to an end in 1865, but the country still had to confront the widespread presence of similar practices.

As Jim Crow laws, or local statutes of racial segregation, were enacted in the southern states, racial repression and exploitation stretched into the 20th century, reducing the entire black population to decades of second-class citizenship.

"All men are created equal," stated the Declaration of Independence in 1776, a founding document of American values. However, it was not until the 1960s that something so "self-evident" in legal systems granted black Americans equal rights.

Driving demand

This year, the US has applied the same old twisted logic by ranking itself the top performer in the annual trafficking report.

Luis Cabeza deBaca, former US anti-trafficking ambassador-at-large, said it is a common misconception among US citizens that trafficking is just "a problem in other countries" as the term comes with an impression that the pattern is transport-based.

However, massive data, cases and personal accounts attest that the US has long been-to put it in the State Department's own words-"a source, transit and destination country" of adult and minor victims, both at home and abroad.

An estimated 403,000 people in the US were kept for modern slavery in 2016, either in forced labor or sex trafficking, according to the Global Slavery Index published in 2018 by Australia's Walk Free Foundation.

According to nonprofit organization Polaris, the US National Human Trafficking Hotline handled more than 5,700 cases in 2015. Four years later, that number doubled to 11,500.

Such cases have been reported in restaurants, cleaning services, construction and factories, many of which appear to be legal businesses.

In 2019, US federal prosecutors sued 12 hotel groups, including Hilton Worldwide Holdings and Intercontinental Hotels & Resorts, claiming that they knowingly ignored signs of women being sold as sex slaves. Some even reported profiting from sex trafficking.

Nonprofit organization Deliver-Fund reported last year that between 15,000 and 50,000 women and children are coerced into commercial sex annually in the US.

"The US is the number one consumer of sex worldwide. So we are driving the demand as a society," said Geoff Rogers, co-founder of the US Institute Against Human Trafficking, to Fox News.

"We're also driving the demand with our own people, with our own kids."

Forced labor

The day of legal slavery in the US is long over. Yet, its dark past of threats, violence, fraud and coercion to exploit people for labor or sex remains.

Slavery is not merely a relic, but a problem "alive and well"."It has simply taken on a new form," said Laurel Fletcher, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

In 2007, US citizen Rory Mayberry testified that a government contractor that he had worked for was involved in using forced laborers during the reconstruction of the US embassy in Baghdad.

Mayberry said the employer once asked him to bring 51 Filipino workers to the Iraqi capital via a transit flight.

But the plane landed elsewhere. "All of our tickets said we were going to Dubai," Mayberry was quoted as saying by The Washington Post.

Upon arrival, he was told by a manager not to disclose the real destination. He also noticed that the workers' passports had been taken away.

Like the Filipinos, legions of people from all corners of the world were either coerced or lured into forced labor by false promises, reported VOX news in 2015.

Nongovernmental organization Anti-Slavery International describes them as "some of the poorest paid and most exploited workers within the US economy", who are deprived of employment rights such as health insurance, sick leave, pension, or job security.

A more compelling fact is that 71 percent of victims of forced and coerced labor enter the US on legal visas, and over a third of all victims work in domestic servitude and live with their employers, according to a 2014 study by the Urban Institute and Northeastern University.

Illegal migrants

Migrants and refugees are particularly vulnerable to various forms of labor trafficking and related inhumane treatment.

Amid increasingly tightened US immigration policies and reckless law enforcement, more than 850,000 immigrants were detained at the US-Mexico border in fiscal 2019, and an unprecedented 69,550 migrant children were held in US government custody away from their caretakers, according to media reports and official data.

The separation reached its height after the US government enacted a zero-tolerance policy for illegal entry in 2018, igniting an urgent humanitarian concern.

Stressing that children should never be held in immigration detention or separated from their families, Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said in 2019 that she was "deeply shocked" that the children were forced to sleep on the floor in overcrowded facilities, lacking adequate healthcare, food and sanitation.

Last year, about 40 women from Latin America and the Caribbean who were held at a detention center in Georgia state sued the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement for undergoing unnecessary and nonconsensual gynecological surgeries, including uterus removal, which they said caused severe physical and mental harm.

"Modern slavery doesn't come with the iron chains and auctions of the past. Today's restraints take the form of withheld documents, the possibility of exposure, and the threat of deportation," wrote Aryn Baker, a Time magazine correspondent, in 2019, asking for more inclusive US immigration policies to bring an end to the humanitarian crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has added a new layer of tragedy to vulnerable detainees, as they are more likely to be infected with the virus due to dense gatherings and health supplies shortage.

"It was a very uncomfortable and very ugly situation that I went through," said Heraldo Malumbrez, a 38-year-old Guatemalan who had been in immigration detention in Arizona state for more than three months before being infected with COVID-19 in July 2020.

"We are talking systemic cruelty (with) a dehumanizing culture that treats them like animals," wrote Democratic House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a tweet in 2019.