Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States

Image of Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States
Release Date: 
March 17, 2014
Duke University Press
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Life Interrupted provides eye-opening insights into the lives of almost invisible migrants forced to labor under inhuman conditions in our country.”

The word trafficking tends to evoke sensational media headlines about sex slaves in faraway places where acute human exploitation is prevalent. Anthropologist Dr. Denise Brennan makes it clear that not only does trafficking occur in a wide range of jobs it also occurs not just “over there” but right here at home.

“Trafficking into forced labor is migration gone awry . . . This book explores what happens when individuals lose control of their border crossing.”

In an empathetic ethnography of international migrants to the United States based on almost a decade of fieldwork with formerly trafficked persons and their advocates, Brennan shows how global economic inequities foster under-regulated and unprotected American workplaces that routinely abuse labor.

In this underbelly of the global political economy, low-wage international workers in factories, child care, health, bars, hotels, construction, the garment trade, and on farms are particularly vulnerable, along with sex workers. Unfair work conditions easily cross blurred lines into the extreme end of an exploitation continuum.

“The desire, and sometimes desperation to migrate for work and the kinds of jobs available for workers in poorly regulated or unregulated labor sectors produce . . . a global regime of worker exploitation.”

Meanwhile punitive immigration policies and toothless labor laws undermine efforts to fight trafficking. And the official conflation of trafficking with prostitution, together with the influence of evangelical and mainstream feminist organizations, can drive exploitation further underground and make it harder for trafficking victims to seek help.

“The George W. Bush era decoupled trafficking from forced labor in all labor sectors and reframed it instead as about sexual exploitation. Fighting trafficking in the United States became a way for antiprostitution activists and policymakers to crack down on the sex sector and its workers—both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens.”

Life Interrupted is set within the overall political backdrop of the everyday exploitation of migrant workers. Brennan’s gaze zeros in on recipients of T visas issued by the U.S. government to severely exploited migrants under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) passed in 2000.

Less than 4,000 of these special visas have been issued, though the government estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 persons are in situations of extreme exploitation in the United States.

To qualify, exploited workers must prove that they are victims of “force, fraud or coercion” for the purpose of involuntary servitude. This is not easy to substantiate, particularly without clear evidence of physical violence or restraint. And many traffickers rely instead on psychological intimidation to cultivate isolation, helplessness, and constant fear of wage loss and deportation.

This strategy of disempowerment and dehumanization is highly effective and many migrants tolerate extreme abuse to keep their jobs.

Victims are likely to have their passports and other ID confiscated. They work long hours without respite. Their health suffers. They are forbidden to make friends or leave the house or workplace unaccompanied. They lack cash and seasonal outdoor clothing. Food deprivation and withholding wages are common.

Perhaps worst of all are the constant humiliation and threats. Esperanza explains that she did not seek help because her trafficker told her, “Who is going to believe you! You are nobody in this country and you don’t even have an ID. You don’t have an education, you don’t speak English and you don’t have money. So the police might think you are crazy and they will put you in jail and you will never see your children.”

Most migrants have been accustomed to a certain amount of demeaning treatment in subordinate jobs. But many are treated more harshly in the United States than they had been overseas.

For another informant “being fed table scraps and forced to eat on the floor was a level of abuse that she never before had encountered . . . She may never have expected—or wanted—to eat with her employers, but being treated like an animal came as a shock that Maria still cannot explain.”

Despite their apparent submission, many forced laborers are actually biding their time while strategizing how best to make their escape. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to mail a letter home, take a bus to the police station, or telephone the friend of a friend for help.

Only rarely does the Stockholm syndrome set in, where identification with one’s trafficker prevents those in forced labor from leaving. Instead fear is the dominant power dynamic, though women in a romantic relationship with their abuser may have difficulty severing strings.

Brennan does not dwell on dark tales of traumatized victims, but moves on to focus on how formerly trafficked persons were able to escape and rebuild their lives in the United States as survivors.

“How do they set their lives in motion on their own terms?”  How do they cope with “the everyday lifework” of acquiring immediate material needs—housing, work, health care—as well as plan for the longer term?

Clearly huge obstacles need to be overcome. Although some government assistance is available to T visa recipients, this only covers shelter, food and counseling for a few months, which can scarcely begin to offset years of abuse. Learning how to trust again becomes a vital life skill as T visa recipients usually are isolated individuals and their social worker may be their only confidant.

Furthermore, T visa recipients usually have little formal education, and are often in debt to the various brokers who arranged their de facto slavery.

Qualified only for low-wage jobs, they walk a financial and time-budget tightrope, juggling household needs, transport imperatives, family care, and educational upgrades, especially if they remit earnings to help loved ones back home. “Life after forced labor in the United States is life on the margins.”

Life Interrupted provides eye-opening insights into the lives of almost invisible migrants forced to labor under inhuman conditions in our country. The book underscores that “while abuses within the sex sector are horrific . . . one kind of abuse and one kind of victimhood should not be privileged over others.”

Nonetheless, some dense jargon, an overload of documentation, and considerable repetition detract from readability. The writing is serviceable, but does not sing, except when Dr. Brennan is working directly from her informants’ experiences. Yet the book is well worth reading to hear the previously silenced voices of this globalized wave of trafficked labor in America.