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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

No Evidence to Back Trump's SOTU Sex-Trafficking Claims: Reason Roundup

By Elizabeth Nolan Brown - February 06, 2019 at 09:30AM

During last night's State of the Union address, President Donald Trump said that "human traffickers and sex traffickers take advantage of the wide open areas between our ports of entry to smuggle thousands of young girls and women into the United States and to sell them into prostitution and modern-day slavery."

As you might expect, no evidence backs up such a claim.

Outlandish tales of depraved immigrants preying on innocent girls is one of the oldest tricks, however, when it comes to stirring up sex-trafficking fears in service of political ends. And in Trump's case, that's things like building a big border wall, preventing refugees from seeking asylum here, and portraying himself as the savior of an America overrun by people who don't belong, many of them criminals.

The sincerity of Trump's concern for migrant women and girls is belied by his actual policies. His administration has made it harder for people to seek refuge here on humanitarian grounds; tried to specifically prohibit anyone coming here from war-torn countries where these crimes are actually prevalent; and pushes border policies that drive desperate people into the arms of smugglers, where women in particular are more likely to face exploitation or abuse.

There's evidence to support Trump's claim that many migrant women will face sexual assault—not the "one in three" he cites, but still too many—and yet the reason these people can't come through safer means is a direct result of U.S. immigration policy. On the flip side, undocumented immigrants or legal immigrants doing sex work within the U.S. are also at greater risk in a climate where courthouses, hospitals, and police stations are increasingly stalked by immigration agents.

In New York City, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents were known to hang around the city's "human trafficking intervention court"—a court meant for those deemed victims, not traffickers—and pick up women there on prostitution or unlicensed massage charges. Around 91 percent of unlicensed massage arrests in NYC are of non-citizens, according to Kate Mogulescu of Legal Aid.

It's unclear if these women were counted among the 1,500 human traffickers that Trump's SOTU speech cited as having been "put behind bars" by ICE last year. The number seems to come from a recent White House press release, which says that ICE and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) "made 1588 Human Trafficking arrests" in fiscal-year 2018. (Though it's also possible Trump is referring to a favorite Pizzagate/QAnon theory.)

While I can't definitely say that the human-trafficking arrest claim isn't true, I'll point out that federal agencies generally put out statements about any sex-trafficking cases they're prosecuting, and those numbers don't nearly match the number of arrests the White House suggests. The ICE website shows nine press releases mentioning sex trafficking in the past year, and two mentioning human trafficking (neither of the latter about criminal cases). Adding general Homeland Security, FBI, and Justice Department press releases still doesn't get us anywhere near 1,500.

My suspicion is that the White House is counting anyone arrested in "human trafficking operations," not those arrested and indicted for human trafficking. This is an important distinction, since many of those arrested under these operations have nothing to do with human trafficking, labor violations, prostitution, or assault at all. But most of the time, ICE, the FBI, and politicians will use linguistic maneuvering to make it sound as if all the arrests were for sex crimes. (See also: "Trump's mythical crackdown on sex trafficking.")

If you actually read beyond the headlines about federal "anti-trafficking" initiates touting big results, you'll see that these almost never involve human trafficking charges and if they do, it's a small fraction of the total arrests. Instead, these stings and raids are used to check people's papers and arrest anyone they can for immigration violations, prostitution, drug possession, or other low-level offenses of the sort that can still get legal immigrants deported.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is right that President Donald Trump "tries to use" the issue of sex trafficking "to justify his wall." But Kristof somehow still thinks that empowering the Justice Department to "prosecute pimps more aggressively" will fall fairly on serious criminals and not also be used as a pretense to target disfavored groups. Under a Trump administration, that will inevitably fall on communities where federal agents think they may find people running afoul of immigration laws.

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QUICK HITS

• Read the whole State of the Union speech here if you're a masochist.

• Here's more on Trump's false crusade against trafficking, from The New Yorker.

• And more Reason State of the Union Coverage:

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