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Feature 102912 Paterson

Monday, October 29, 2012

'Borderline Slavery' - Migrant Labor, Sex Trafficking and Security

By Kent Paterson

"Each year, thousands of people are trafficked within and across our borders to serve as sex slaves or un-free labor in U.S. homes, fields and factories. Many enter via our southern border with Mexico, after having been trafficked within or across Mexico from other parts of the Americas and beyond ... enslaved migrant laborers are often seen simply as undocumented workers who are in the country illegally, while sex trafficking victims are merely prostitutes plying an illegal trade.."

The above passages were from a program backgrounder to a timely conference held recently at the University of New Mexico (UNM) in Albuquerque: "Borderline Slavery:  Contemporary Issues in Border Security and the Human Trade."

Sponsored by UNM's Latin American and Iberian Institute, and in cooperation with colleagues from New Mexico State, the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and other academic institutions, the event drew borderlands scholars, journalists, legal professionals and students.

In a series of presentations, panelists dug into the problem of human trafficking within the socio-economic contexts of massive immigration, globalization, drug prohibition, border militarization, and the War on Terror. And as conference participants learned, the parts can't be neatly packaged into just a U.S.-Mexico box, but encompass long migrant threads from Central America, the Caribbean and elsewhere.

Dr. Tony Payan, professor of political science at UTEP and the author or co-editor of several books on border issues, laid out a series of questions and considerations he said researchers must address in order to disentangle human trafficking and not confuse it with traditional, cross-border human smuggling. 

"We need to be careful with our research agenda," Payan cautioned. "We need precision, clarification and definition about what (human trafficking) means." As an example of "diluted" research, Payan said misconceptions had grown about femicides, or the killing of women based on gender and sexual violence, in Ciudad Juarez. "Not every death of every female human being is a femicide," Payan maintained. "I think the issue of human trafficking is at that point, and we can do a disservice rather than a service to public policy."

Currently a visiting scholar at Houston's Rice University, Payan urged his colleagues to disentangle the causes, actors, measures, origins, routes and destinations of human trafficking, an activity which implies coercion and control over a human being.

Payan and Dr. Josiah Heyman, chair of UTEP's sociology and anthropology department, also spoke about the push towards new guest worker programs in the U.S.

Though critical of such schemes as a "kind of legal trafficking," Heyman said guest worker programs present a dilemma for human rights advocates since formal labor supply systems controlled by governments do not imply the abuses and crimes associated with organized criminal networks, yet still curtail worker mobility and independence.

Payan added that in the case of Mexico, the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party to power once again raises questions of corruption, patronage and benefit in the administration of any new guest worker program, citing as a historic cautionary tale the disappearance of the special bracero fund supposedly set aside for returning Mexican guest workers who were employed in the U.S. decades ago. He said possible political patronage in the granting of visas to new guest workers is an aspect that needs to be "thought of carefully."

On a hemispheric note, Dr. Richard Schaefer, UNM journalism professor, depicted how Mexico has the two most "unequal borders" in the world,  sharing a northern one with 314 million people in the affluent U.S. and a southern one with 35 million people in poor Central America.  Schaefer, who has taken UNM students on trips to Mexico and Central America with the Cross-Border Issues Group to investigate conditions on the ground, stressed that the dominant nationalities of undocumented persons crossing the U.S. southern border shifted within the last three years, when Central Americans overtook Mexicans as the majority group. 

"Today, many more Central Americans are coming relative to the Mexicans that are coming up from the south," Schaefer said.

Heyman spoke about transformations along the migrant routes, highlighting the increased control of sophisticated criminal organizations. A kind of symbiotic relationship exists between transnational crime groups, which must become bigger and savvier to flourish, and law enforcement agencies that demand bigger budgets and bigger bureaucracies to counter the growing crime groups. "The criminal organizations and the big state organizations feed off each other," Heyman contended.

Splashed onto the scene, he added, are an assortment of "parasites on the border crossing process ..." robbers, kidnappers of migrant groups and "an economic network of money collectors and exploiters on the Mexican side of the border."

A pioneer scholar of U.S.-Mexico border militarization, Dr. Timothy Dunn of Maryland's Salisbury University, updated the U.S. border security expansion as well as the gradual merging of police and military functions on this side of the border. "Police are acting more like the military and the military are acting more like the police," Dunn said.

Employing power point graphics, the former El Paso resident displayed a sharp increase in the availability and use of technological tools deployed along a 2,000-mile frontier. According to the sociologist, U.S. border security now has at its disposal seven drone aircraft, 650 miles of new fencing and walls, expanded infrared and video surveillance, and assault rifles for Border Patrol officers. 

Because of the prevalence of private land in Texas, the deployment of the military in training and operational exercises is more common in California, Arizona and New Mexico, all places where the federal government owns more land and doesn't have to seek permission from private owners, according to Dunn.

In the conference keynote speech, Dunn underscored how the number of Border Patrol agents increased 479 percent from 2003 to 2011, reaching 21,444 personnel last year, with 85 percent of them stationed on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The veteran researcher outlined different impacts ramped-up border security has yielded since the unveiling of Operation Hold the Line in El Paso in 1993.

Citing the American Public Health Association, the rerouting of migrants through remote, dangerous zones has produced a "public health crisis," Dunn said, with at least 6,100 bodies recovered on the U.S. side of the border alone from 1994 to 2011. "The real number of bodies out there is probably much higher," he was quick to add.

In Dunn's view, other effects of the border clampdown include longer stays by undocumented immigrants, whose numbers increased from 3.5 million people to 11-12 million before decreasing to 10-11 million; greater physical and verbal abuse by Border Patrol agents; and a sharp increase in crossing fees paid by migrants to smugglers from the $500-$1,000 range in the 1980s to upwards of $2,500 nowadays. The border security complex, Dunn insisted, "pushes people not only into the hands of human smugglers, but it becomes human trafficking."

Asked by FNS how climate change plays into the bigger migration and security picture, Dunn said the Pentagon considers climate change a matter of national security and commissions reports. "They're certainly looking at it in those terms," he said. "They are trying to get a handle on that."

The UNM event also examined new anti-trafficking laws in Mexico, the emergence of Houston as a center of human trafficking and the relationship between kidnapping and human trafficking. The closing remarks at the gathering were delivered by Dr. Cornell H. Menking, associate provost of international and border programs at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

The Duke City conference built on a 2009 event that was organized in cooperation with the United Nations, resulting in the publication of the book Borderline Slavery: Mexico, the United States and the Human Trade (Ashgate Press 2012).

Dr. Susan Tiano, UNM professor of sociology and director of the Latin American and Iberian Institute, told FNS she was more than pleased by the coming together of diverse minds to tackle an issue "whose time has come." The information shared at the conference gave people the necessary knowledge to understand how "human trafficking is linked to our misguided border security and immigration issues," Tiano said. 

Tiano added that an energetic group of UNM students is helping build momentum on public awareness about the human trafficking issue, and the university anticipates hosting another conference in the fall of 2013, perhaps in a debate-style format around public policies connected to sex or labor trafficking -- or both. "I'm extremely excited about the possibility of UNM becoming a vanguard in the scholarship of human trafficking," Tiano concluded.

Not surprisingly, the meeting was interwoven with discussions on drugs and drug cartels and their associations or non-associations with human trafficking. The pervasiveness of the drug issue on both sides of the US-Mexico border was vividly illustrated after the reporter left UNM and boarded one of the city buses that go up and down Albuquerque's Central Avenue main drag. A grizzled man hopped aboard and headed to the back of the bus, loudly asking if anyone wanted to buy OxyContin, the synthetic opioid that is widely abused in New Mexico and the U.S. A woman asked the man if he had some for sale and he replied in the affirmative.

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Frontera NorteSur (FNS)
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

Kent Paterson is the editor of Frontera NorteSur.  Reprinted with authorization from Frontera NorteSur, a free, on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news source.


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