Human Trafficking, Immigration Regulation and Sub-Federal Criminalization


In less than two decades, the issue of human trafficking has evolved from a relatively obscure concept to a widely discussed international social problem that has engendered a host of interventions at the international, national, and sub-national level. The purpose of this article is to shed light on how anti-trafficking efforts have been instantiated at the local level. This article assesses the record of sub-federal anti-trafficking efforts in the United States by looking at state anti-trafficking legislation, newspaper coverage of anti-trafficking efforts within states, and published cases involving state trafficking prosecutions in nine different states in the United States in the period from 2004-2014. These states’ anti-trafficking laws have varied histories. Some state legislators appear to have been motivated primarily by concerns about migration control, others by concerns about the need to further criminalize sexual exploitation. This article discusses these histories and then analyzes the implementation of anti-trafficking laws at the state level by looking at criminal prosecutions brought under these state trafficking laws. This analysis reveals that while trafficking law functions discursively as an important component of state-level migration control efforts in some jurisdictions, by and large state prosecutors in all jurisdictions have largely tended to target citizens, not noncitizens, for their trafficking prosecutions. Most state prosecutors have used state level anti-trafficking statutes to charge members of racial minority groups – largely, but not exclusively, men – for trafficking in connection with commercial sex offenses. The final section of the article explores some of the implications of these findings, and offer suggestions for future research. Anti-trafficking laws have brought needed attention to wide-ranging problems of human exploitation. Like prior iterations of criminal vice regulation, however, the deployment of state criminal laws to achieve anti-trafficking goals can also work in ways that perpetuate racially discriminatory policing and migrant criminalization.


UC Irvine School of Law Research Paper No. 2016-36
Criminal Justice, Borders and Citizenship Research Paper No. 2791792

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