Tag Archives: Human Trafficking

Another (Reauthorization) Act to Follow

December 3, 2012

Photo: "Human Trafficking" by Leonard John Matthews from Flickr/Creative Commons

Photo: “Human Trafficking” by Leonard John Matthews from Flickr/Creative Commons

By Susan C. Méndez

There seems to be no end to the potential human collateral that can be caused by the United States Congress’s inaction. Along with the delay in renewing the Violence Against Women Act, recent news coverage has focused on another delay in reauthorizing the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA). The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime defines human trafficking as “an act of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving a person through a use of force, coercion or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them.” According to a news article by Mounira Al Hmoud in the Times Argus online, more than 2,500 alleged incidents of human trafficking were filed between January 1, 2008 and June 30, 2010 in the United States. About 82% of these reported incidents involved sex trafficking: more than 1,200 incidents involved adult sex trafficking and 1,000 incidents involved child sexual exploitation. And these are just the reported cases for this time period. Notably, human traffickers largely target women and children of color. As such, those who have rose up to speak on this issue are tied closely to this community. Recently Jada Pinkett Smith and her daughter Willow Smith made the news with their appearances in Washington, D.C. to talk to government officials about this issue. Reportedly, more than 2,500 alleged incidents of human trafficking were filed between January 1, 2008 and June 30, 2010 in the United States. About 82% of these reported incidents involved sex trafficking: more than 1,200 incidents involved adult sex trafficking and 1,000 incidents involved child sexual exploitation. And these are just the reported cases for this time period. Pinkett Smith founded an anti-trafficking group named “Don’t Sell Bodies” and sang a song in Spanish entitled “Nada,” whose video highlights the story of a young woman being trafficked by a love-interest and is directed by Salma Hayek. It is no coincidence that these key actions which stress the issue of human trafficking have come from members of the larger women of color community; such actions and participants are good indicators as to who should be paying attention to human trafficking.  Pinkett Smith and her daughter’s most recent actions include participating in the Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking. Their advocacy on this issue has brought much needed attention back to the fate of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA).

This act, also known as the largest piece of human rights legislation in the United States, was the first federal law to address comprehensively trafficking as a crime on both the international and domestic fronts. According to Polaris Project (a non-profit, non-governmental organization that fights modern day slavery and human trafficking), the TVPA is composed of three aspects: “prevention through public awareness programs overseas and a State-department led monitoring and sanctions program; protection through new T-visa and services for foreign national victims; and prosecution through new federal crimes.” This legislation was significant because it created an Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking, whose task it is to rank other countries based on their efforts to halt human trafficking (and the President of the United States may choose to impose sanctions on countries that do not meet the minimum standards to end trafficking); established the temporary legal status of “continued presence” and the new T visa which allows survivors of human trafficking to stay in the United States temporarily and to apply for permanent residency after 3 years; and made trafficking a federal crime along with the new crime of forced labor (individual and corporate employers are the ones liable to be charged with these crimes). The TVPA of 2000 (P.L. 106-386) was an astounding act of humanity and compassion; it was reauthorized in 2003 (H.R. 2620), in 2005 (H.R. 972), and in 2008 (H.R. 7311) easily. Its renewal is purposefully scheduled every two to three years in order to address that fact that traffickers change their modes of operation periodically. Each time this act was reauthorized, improvements were made that enhanced the original bill’s approach to end human trafficking.

Although various academics, journalists and activists may have differing perspectives on the impact of human trafficking and the methods and language used to convey assistance to those who are trafficked, the impetus behind this act appears to be extending offers of help to those who find themselves to be survivors of exploitative practices. Consequently, the need for this act still is apparent and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2011 (S.1301) began its renewal process on June 29, 2011 when the act was introduced and referred to its committee led by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Initially, this Reauthorization Act had 42 Senatorial co-sponsors (it now has 52). According to Leahy aides, when this committee turned to the House of Representatives, there was a need to strike a deal and that need has delayed renewal. The Act expired on September 30, 2011. Mounira Al Hmoud reported for the Times Argus online that for the past fifteen months, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2011 has been referred to five different committees of the House, has undergone significant revision, and has Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) as its sponsor. An editorial piece in The New York Times, dated March 21, 2012, explains how these revisions have not always been beneficial. For example, one revised aspect is the moving of financing for survivors’ services from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Justice. This shifting makes little sense as the Department of Justice, in comparison to the Department of Health and Human Services, is not equipped to deal with the multi-faceted experiences and needs of survivors. Besides ill-conceived revisions, another detrimental aspect to the stalling of passing this reauthorization act is the inaccurate application of language used to discuss human trafficking to prosecute undocumented immigrants in states such as Arizona where anti-immigrant fervor is strong.

So what does this act look like now? Where does it stand and what does it have to do with the Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking? The aforementioned editorial in The New York Times also details how in October 2011, a Senate bill to renew this act through 2015 cleared the Judiciary Committee, yet has not come to a floor vote. The bill for this act’s renewal cuts appropriations to 130 million but increases “victim” assistance to $25.5 million. It also has strengthened enforcement measures. The Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking is co-chaired by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Robert Portman (R-OH). They aim to engage caucus members in agreeing upon common goals and creating policies to achieve these goals in the quest to end human trafficking. There are 13 Senators on this caucus, and it is fitting that Blumenthal and Portman are co-chairs because in June 2012, they sponsored the End Trafficking in Government Contracting bill. (In this bill, these two Senators hoped to change pending defense fund legislation in order to stop funds for government contractors who employed trafficked laborers.) It is suspected the work and attention that this caucus will garner can only bring the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2011 back to both public and governmental discussion. The caucus has already begun productive conversation as Jada Pinkett Smith has expressed her hope that the caucus will establish an advisory council of survivors that can help the government comprehend the various complexities of human trafficking. It appears good results can come out of this caucus.

Recent news reports have restated the need for this act, along with the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, to pass Congress before the end of this year. However, with much needed attention and work focused on the “fiscal cliff,” the renewal of these crucial acts seems doubtful and such a delay would be disastrous for those seeking assistance. The same editorial in The New York Times describes recent successful efforts made to reach out to survivors of human trafficking. These efforts include: “a new trafficking hot line, financed through a grant by health and human services, for instance, [which] has taken more than 49,000 calls, connected 5,770 potential victims with services and provided more than 2,155 law-enforcement tips.” Such services are not plentiful and whatever resources exist to help people who find themselves to be survivors of exploitative practices like human trafficking should be maintained if not expanded.


Blumenthal, Richard. “Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking.” n.p. n.d. Web. 16 November 2012.

Hmoud. Mounira Al. “Leahy Seeks Action on Two Upcoming Bills.” Times Argus. Times Argus, 12 November 2012. Web. 12 November 2012.

Polaris Project. Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act (TVPA)-Fact Sheet. Washington: Polaris Project, 2008. PDF file.

“The Fight Against Modern Day Slavery.” Editorial. The New York Times 21 March 2012: A30. Print.

“Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2011.” Govtrack.us. Civic Impulse, LLC, n.d. Web. 16 November 2012.


Susan C. Méndez is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English & Theatre and the Department of Latin American & Women’s Studies at the University of Scranton. She teaches courses on Multi-Ethnic American Literature and Women’s Studies. Primarily, she conducts research on novels written by Latino/a authors.


Sara Ramirez    December 13, 2012 at 9:43 PM

Thank you for your post, Prof. Méndez. I voted in California last month, and Prop. 35 had to do with human trafficking and penalties. Like most voters uninformed on this measure, I unquestioningly voted YES for increased penalties on those convicted of human trafficking crimes. I soon learned from my progressive colleagues that I should have voted NO. Do you know about this measure and how it affects people of color?



Guatemalans’ Missing Children

May 21, 2012
Tucson, AZ Immigrant Rights Protest. April 2006. Photo credit: Laura Briggs

Tucson, AZ Immigrant Rights Protest. April 2006. Photo credit: Laura Briggs

By Laura Briggs

Last week, the U.S. State Department announced that it would not return a girl adopted from Guatemala in 2008, even though courts there found that she had been kidnapped. The child’s mother, working with Fundación Sobreviventes (a feminist group that works on femicide, child sexual abuse, and children lost to adoptions) has said that she will travel to Missouri to ask a court there to return custody of her daughter to her. The child’s adoptive parents, Timothy and Jennifer Monahan, have consistently said that they have a complete and valid adoption, and, after an appearance on the CBS Early Show in 2010, have hired a publicity firm and refused to speak to anyone about the case.

According to Erin Siegel, a journalist who has done some of the best  U.S.-based reporting on adoption from Guatemala, the child, Anyelí Hernández Rodríguez, was 2 years old when disappeared from the patio of the family’s home in San Miguel Petapa, a small community outside Guatemala City, while her mother was bringing in groceries. Although the family searched for her–putting up posters, contacting the police, and attempting to visit orphanages, Anyelí was offered for adoption to the Monahans in 2007. A DNA test found that the supposed birth mother who was relinquishing Anyelí was fraudulent. According to emails published by Siegel, Sue Hedberg, the director of the Christian adoption agency, Celebrate Children International, told Jennifer Monahan that although increased scrutiny had made it much more difficult for the company involved, LabCorp, to “bury” the DNA test, Monahan might be offered the child again under a different name. Subsequently, Hedberg made “Karen Abigail” available to the Monahans for adoption, a child of the same age who was allegedly abandoned. When Anyelí’s birthparents got access to adoption records in Guatemala with the help of Sobreviventes, they identified “Karen Abigail” as their daughter from the photo on the birth certificate. By then, however, she had already left the country with the Monahans, on her way to Liberty, Mo., with the help of Susana Luarca a Guatemalan lawyer notorious in human rights circles, and identified in the US press as a participant in abusive adoption practices at least six years earlier.

I’m always afraid people think I’m making stuff up when I write about adoption from Guatemala, but this case has published documents and multiple convictions of people involved. It’s also a lot like other cases I wrote about in Somebody’s Children.

Anyeli’s mother, Loyda Rodríguez, participated in the 2008 Sobreviventeshunger strike that finally led to the halting of most adoptions from Guatemala to the US (as most other nations had long since stopped them). As she continued to pursue the case, through activism and the courts, Rodríguez also faced stepped up harassment: her sister was abducted (although she escaped), and she was followed by strange cars. Finally, Rodríguez took her three children and fled the Guatemala City area in terror.

The manifest unhelpfulness of the U.S. State Department, the Guatemalan police and government agencies that Rodríguez turned to for help, and the fact that she has been harassed and terrorized should not surprise us. Adoption from Guatemala to the United States  became a huge money-making enterprise carried out by courts, lawyers, and government agencies together with criminal mafias in the 90s and first decade after 2000. Before that, disappearing children was a practice carried out by militaries and paramilitaries to terrorize their supposed enemies on the political Left. As the human rights groups Todos por el Reencuentro has documented, thousands of children were disappeared during the civil war in Guatemala, beginning with a vengeance in the 1980s. This story, along with the attempted genocide of indigenous people there, has been thoroughly ignored in the United States. Most of these children were adopted within Guatemala, but some made their way into adoption to the US, Canada, and Western Europe. By 1994, when the Peace Accords were signed, adoption had become a very lucrative enterprise. As the war to defeat Communism in Guatemala was ending, members of the military and others began engaging in a particularly spectacular form of neoliberal capitalism: the disappearance and sale of children for up to $30,000 each in adoption “fees.” The worst was that most of it was all perfectly legal, a fact that hindered the efficacy of international human rights activism against “trafficking” or “illegal” adoption.

Fortunately for Anyelí’s mother, there were actual crimes committed in her case: a falsified birth certificate, a documented abduction. Whether the Missouri courts will find those issues relevant remains to be seen. But for thousands of Guatemalans–as for Salvadorans and Argentines–one of the legacies of the wars and their aftermath is children disappeared, alive, and still unaccounted for, or known to be raised by other families.

But when Guatemalan and other Central American survivors of the civil wars and US proxy wars in the region in the 1980s and 90s arrive in the United States, they encounter other “security” forces that prosecute them for the crime of fleeing without the visas the US refused (and refuses) to grant them. Sometimes, they also take their children away here.

For example, in a case that has received widespread attention, Encarnación Bail Romero, one of 136 immigrant detained in a workplace raid of poultry processing plant in Missouri in April 2007, had parental rights to her six month old son terminated as a result. Hers was among the first raids the Department of Homeland Security pursued as part of a campaign they called “Operation Return to Sender,” which promised to aggressively prosecute “crimes” related to false identification, to sentence and hold people on those crimes, to conduct workplace raids, and to deport people whose status was suspect. So Bail was charged with possessing a fake ID, and served a year and a half in jail for that crime, waiting to be deported after she had served her sentence.

At first, her baby, Carlos, stayed with two aunts. But they were sharing a tiny apartment with six of their own children, and had very little money. When a teacher’s aid at one of their children’s school offered to find someone else to care for Carlos, they agreed. Three months later, the aid visited Encarnación in jail, saying a couple with land and a beautiful house wanted to adopt Carlos. She said no. A few weeks later, an adoption petition arrived at the jail, in English. Encarnación was not literate in Spanish, never mind English. Still, with the help of Mexican cellmate, a guard, and a bilingual Guatemalan visitor, she prepared a response to the court: “I do not want my son to be adopted by anyone,” she wrote on a piece of notebook paper. “I would prefer that he be placed in foster care until I am not in jail any longer. I would like to have visitation with my son.” Although she repeatedly asked judges and lawyers for help, it was a year before she found a lawyer who would take the case. By then, it was too late. The couple caring for Carlos complained that she had sent no money for his support and had not contacted him. A year and a half after she went to jail, a judge terminated her parental rights and permitted the other couple to adopt him. “Her lifestyle, that of smuggling herself into the country illegally and committing crimes in this country,” Judge Dally wrote, referring to the false ID, “is not a lifestyle that can provide stability for a child. A child cannot be educated this way, always in hiding or on the run.”

In another closely watched case, María Luis, a Guatemalan, a Maya-Kiché woman in Grand Isle, Nebraska (the site of another large workplace raid, although Luis had come to the attention of authorities earlier) had her parental rights terminated as well, following her arrest for lying to the police and subsequent deportation. María had taken her one-year old daughter, Angelica, to the doctor for a respiratory infection. Although she was a Kiché-speaker, the doctors instructed her in Spanish about how to care for the child. When she failed to arrive for a follow-up appointment, social services went to her house with the police. When asked if she was her children’s mother, María, frightened that she would be in trouble because of her immigration status, said she was the babysitter. The police arrested her on a criminal charge for falsely identifying herself, and she was deported. Angelica and Daniel, 7, went to foster care, and state social services began proceedings to terminate her parental rights. Federal immigration officials gave her no opportunity to participate in those proceedings, and she lost the children. In April, 2009, four years after the children were originally sent to foster care, the Nebraska Supreme Court restored her parental rights, saying that federal immigration officials had denied her due process rights in interfering with her ability to participate in the state proceedings, and that state officials had never provided her with an interpreter, never explained the process through which she could seek custody of the children, and never made any effort to reunify the family, largely because social service workers “thought the children would be better off staying in the United States.”

Stories like these are unusual, in that the mothers finally were able to obtain effective counsel and were able to contest the state social services efforts. National organizations sent out press releases; the cases were publicized in national media and on the Internet. More commonly, no one hears about these cases except the people who know the family and the officials involved. The Urban Institute, in two recent reports, has suggested that there may be hundreds of thousands of children affected by federal immigrant deportations, an unknown number of whom may also be caught in state social welfare cases.  An estimated 4.5 million children in the United States in 2005 had at least one undocumented parent.

Although there is no organized campaign to separate immigrant parents from Guatemala or elsewhere from their children, it is a consequence of workplace raids, criminalization of undocumented status, the absence of civil rights in immigrant detention (including the right to make a phone call to notify people of your whereabouts, or finding out what’s happened to your children), and stepped-up anti-immigrant attacks.  In October, when Alabama’s harsh anti-immigration law was passed, a mother told the UK Guardian that she was drawing up power-of-attorney papers to allow her niece to assume custody of her U.S. citizen children if she were detained by immigration officials. She described her concerns in exactly these terms: “I’m afraid I could disappear without anyone knowing what’s happened to me,” she said, “who knows what would happen to me in jail.”

Nearly two decades after the end of the civil wars in Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America, mothers and children are still being disappeared, some of them in the United States.

Laura Briggs is Chair of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption and Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico. She blogs at somebodyschildren.com.

Mujeres Talk Moderator  June 2, 2012 at 6:14 AM

Thanks Laura for this essay. Your presentation at NWSA – and that whole panel on the impact of new anti-immigration legislation on children and families was important. Your essay also reminds us of Maya-Kiché undocumented – and the problem with assuming that all undocumented from Latin America speak Spanish.