An Overview of Human Trafficking

By Diana Dai and Mumbi Kanyogo

Imagining and Defining Human Trafficking

Modern day human trafficking is characterized by the coercion or illicit enslavement of individuals into labor or commercial sex. While human trafficking has always gone hand in hand with the movement of people around the world, growth in technology, communication and travel has exponentially increased the rate at which people are trafficked into situations that make them vulnerable to abuse, rape, and death. Often times, human trafficking has been associated with countries that do not include the United States. Many studies look to regions such as Southeast Asia or Eastern Europe, a tendency fueled by the stereotype that trafficked victims are usually young girls coerced into the sex trade. While this is certainly a reality, re-focusing the human trafficking issue back to the United States is especially important to defeat the erroneous idea that human trafficking, a human rights violation, is not happening right here at home.

The history of human trafficking in the U.S. begins most obviously with the slave trade. But human trafficking has continued, particularly in cities located near the borders of Mexico, where migrant workers are coerced into working situations through fraud, force and intimidation. According to a study by Farrell and Fahy, 30 percent of undocumented migrant laborers in San Diego were victims of labor trafficking, while 55 percent were victims of other labor abuses. Human trafficking does have a specific definition: according to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) passed by the U.S. Congress in 2000, human trafficking refers to “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”

it is important to acknowledge that incidences labor rights violations are intrinsically tied to the issue of trafficking. There are many reason why human trafficking in particular exists, but the underlying logic of any form of abuse towards migrant workers is that they are people who do not deserve the same rights that citizens are granted. Even more deeply, human trafficking occurs because of broader systems of thinking such as racism, sexism and capitalism that rationalize the exploitation of certain communities for profit. Indeed, while the term ‘human trafficking’ contains the word ‘human’ in it, it is clear that those who are trafficked are routinely dehumanized by those who condone and engage in trafficking.


Often, the reason San Diego has been described as a prime area for human trafficking is as a result of the borders that California shares with Mexico. The overarching narrative has started and ended with unlawful immigration, but it fails to take into consideration the vulnerability of the people who are so desperate that putting their lives and livelihoods in the hands of smugglers appears to be the only option. The apparent better option. On delving further into the issue, it becomes clear that the necessity for smuggling has only increased with the heightening of American border security that prioritizes migrant apprehension, rather than interior enforcement. This, combined with an increase in immigration fees, makes the economically marginalized, particularly in towns such as Tenancingo more vulnerable to both labor and sex trafficking. Given the surge in smuggling over recent years, it is a wonder why human trafficking is not included in national discourse surrounding immigration

One cannot think about human trafficking without recognizing the role of wealth inequity in creating large demographics of vulnerable individuals. From Nigeria, to Thailand, there has been a huge lack of economic alternatives, particularly amongst women and girls that finds it’s roots in economic and political instability and unemployment. And while it is easy to erase the importance of poverty reduction given how the issue of poverty can sometimes feel exhausting at best and cliché at worst. As such we cannot ignore how globalization is widening this already large economic gap between developed and developing countries whilst making inequities larger, which means that everything becomes commoditized, including poor and displaced people – the individuals society ignores. Also there is a huge demand for cheap labor particularly in developed countries, has led to people acquiring this labor through whatever means necessary.

Furthermore, San Diego has a large immigrant population that makes identifying human trafficking an even harder task, thus making it an attractive venture given its apparent invisibility.  This invisibility extends to California’s huge ports of entry and is sustained by the fact that most victims are smuggled using legal documents.

Case One: Labor Trafficking

Zhang et al have conducted an in-depth study of the labor trafficking situation in San Diego. Their study fines that the majority of unauthorized workers live in conventional housing arrangements such as apartments, trailers ,or houses, while another 20 percent live with friends or families. Only 6 percent are homeless or live in canyons. Unauthorized migrant workers are usually found in occupations within the low-skilled sectors, such as agriculture, janitorial services, food processing and construction. Furthermore, construction and janitorial services had the most reported trafficking violations and labor abuses. What this picture shows us is that those who are trafficked are indeed rendered “invisible” – their conventional living arrangements and jobs make it difficult to “see” the problem on an everyday basis. But what needs to be emphasized about human trafficking is that it is a problem that exceeds our imaginary of a trafficked person as a young, abused girl engaging in sex for money (although this is, indeed, still part of the reality). Trafficking is constantly present within our communities, and it is a problem that is caused by conventional, rather than extraordinary or unimaginable, circumstances.

The Zhang et al study also shows that 52 percent of labor trafficking is of men, while 48 percent is of women. In San Diego specifically, the country of origin for most trafficked persons is Mexico (98 percent), while the remaining percentage are people from different countries in Latin America. The types of violations that occur can happen during transit, but also at the workplace by employers who do not respect the worker’s rights. Treats to physical safety, withholding wages, and subjecting to indecent work are all examples of labor rights violations and thus also tied to trafficking practices. Those who exploit and who are involved in trafficking exploit the fact that many migrant workers do not speak English or are in vulnerable financial situations. The demographic and statistical information that the Zhang et al study shows is that labor trafficking is always a deliberate action of those in power over those who are marginalized.

Case Two: Sex Trafficking

In 2012, Carlos Alberta Garcia, 20, was caught for making thousands of dollars by pimping out girls using Internet advertisements. One of the girls, 17, describes Garcia as “crazy and abusive”.

A group of San Diego gang members were arrested for having ran a cross-country sex-trafficking ring. The group lured about 100 school-age girls, as young as 12 who by promising lavish lifestyles. These girls were from broken homes or were runaways and were recruited through social media, parties and even middle and high schools.  They even attempted to enroll an older more experienced prostitute into the school to recruit more girls. The scheme was discovered by parents raising red flags when these girls would arrive at school with expensive and unexplainable items, frequent absences, bruising and other injuries. 22 of the gang members were indicted in December 2014.

Works Cited:

Zhang, Sheldon et al. (2014). “Estimating Labor Trafficking among Unauthorized Migrant Workers in San Diego.” The Annals of The American Academy of Political Science and Social Science 65.