Trump Border Crackdown Opens ‘Black Hole’ in Protection for Immigrants

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A section of existing border wall near Tijuana. Photo by Jonathan McIntosh via Flickr

President Trump’s crackdown on immigration is fueling increases in human trafficking and boosting organized crime, an immigration writer told a John Jay conference  Oct. 9.

The militarism on the border has increased extortion and kidnapping activities by the Los Zetas Cartel, now considered the most dangerous of Mexico’s crime cartels, against individuals trying to reach the U.S. from the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, said Sarah Stillman, a staff writer at The New Yorker who covers immigration and criminal justice issues.

The vulnerability of undocumented workers has been aggravated by White House rhetoric that paints them as security and crime threats to Americans,  Stillman said in a keynote address at the one-day conference on  “Immigration Enforcement & Human Trafficking Under the Trump Administration,” sponsored by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice Research.

“There are legal black holes in protection and enforcement—and there are also black holes in public empathy,” Stillman said in the day’s keynote address.

The explosion of crime associated with immigration, in which the line between smuggling and human trafficking becomes ever more blurry, was compared to the U.S.’s Prohibition of the 1920s by more than one panelist yesterday, evoking the period when making alcohol illegal fostered a crime explosion and thriving underground.

“When you criminalize people, you make them more vulnerable,” said Renan Salgado, senior human trafficking specialist at the Worker Justice Center.

Since Trump took office, immigration advocates and journalists have reported a “tangible chilling effect” for women in particular, ranging from drops in women reporting domestic violence to police for fear of becoming targets of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, particularly in cities like Houston and Los Angeles.

In one example, Asian women working in New York City massage parlors are reportedly unwilling to report sexual assaults, robberies, or predations by their employers for the same reason.

In her New Yorker story published earlier this year, “When Deportation Is a Death Sentence,” Stillman reported on the struggle of survivors of domestic violence seeking safety in the U.S.  or undocumented youths who, as she wrote, “were granted relief from deportation under President Obama, only to have their status imperiled by his successor.”

She wrote: “Still others are asylum seekers from Central America, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere, who have fled gangs, climate crises, and armed conflicts, and were then misinformed or turned away by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, some of whom have been emboldened under President Trump.”

“We could be deporting people to their deaths,” said Stillman at yesterday’s conference. She is working to obtain more statistics—no easy task—with the Global Migration Project at Columbia Journalism School.

For immigrants who enter the country on visas or through other means but do not have legal status—which legal experts said yesterday is harder than ever before to obtain—any brush with law enforcement could lead to detention that lasts for months and deportation.

Even attempts to work with the criminal justice system or obtain services are fraught with peril, the conference was told.

In the New York City borough of Queens,  a flurry of arrests of women working illegally at massage parlors led to an outcry over unfair targeting, and a special court was set up that redefined the women as victims rather than criminals.

In the Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Queens, some of the women from mainland China are offered a deal to take part in a number of counseling sessions in order for charges to be dismissed.

New York City advocates for the women said Tuesday that ICE agents had in several cases come to the human-trafficking intervention court to grab their clients as they arrived or left.

Because of the stigma of immigration and the fear of being picked up, employers are exploiting their undocumented workers in a host of ways: someone not being paid their wages or all of their wages, pressured to stay in abusive conditions or live in squalor while performing migrant work, or tricked or defrauded of their savings.

Labor trafficking and abuse can take place in mansions as well as massage parlors, restaurants, or farms.

One woman from the Philippines who endured a harrowing experience as the nanny and domestic of wealthy diplomats described her life in detail to audience members yesterday.

Edith Mendoza, who had a visa, signed a contract for 37 hours a week of work, at a salary of $10 an hour, before she arrived at the six-bedroom Westchester County estate of Pit and Mareike Koehler, German diplomats.

Very soon, she was told she would have to work from 6 a.m. to midnight, caring for the couple’s four children under the age of 11, cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry. For over a year, she tried to perform the impossible workload, all the while living in an unheated storage room above the garage.

“I wanted to give my family a better life,” said Mendoza, 52, the mother of two children living in the Philippines.

“The contract I signed was a fraud, a lie,” Mendoza said. Before she quit she was forced to work roughly 90 to 100 hours a week, earning about $4 per hour with no overtime or overtime compensation.

Eventually Mendoza’s health broke down, with dizziness and weakness caused by such heavy labor, but her employers would only give her part of Sunday off, never a weekday when she could see a doctor. When she pleaded for medical attention, the Kohlers said she would be fired immediately for taking a weekday break, and Mendoza feared losing her visa.

Through friends she met at her church, Mendoza finally got in contact with Damayan Migrant Workers Association, and was able to extricate herself from the Westchester house. In 2017, Mendoza and her predecessor, Sherile Pahagas, filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, seeking $368,402.94 in damages, including the wages they say they are owed, plus interest and attorney’s fees.

A judge later dismissed the case because the Kohlers have diplomatic immunity.

Riya Ortiz, lead organizer and case manager for Damayan, said diplomats in America are known to seek out Philippine domestics and then exploit them, using their protection from U.S. law enforcement to shield their abuses.

“I lost all the dreams I had,” said Mendoza, in tears. “I became their victim.”

Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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