On Tuesday, President Trump argued that the media is enabling human trafficking at the southern border during a speech to a small business group in Washington. "They are helping these smugglers and these traffickers like nobody would believe. They know it and they know exactly what they're doing," he said, citing no real evidence. He also said that human traffickers are using children as "a ticket to getting into the country" and as "passports."
As is often the case with Trump's statements, it's unclear exactly what he meant or how these alleged human traffickers are supposed to be using these kids. Regardless, it's the latest in a long line of dubious attempts to tie social and political controversies to human trafficking using weak or non-existent evidence.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen echoed the president's hysteria on Monday, saying, "We do not have the luxury of pretending that all individuals coming to this country as a family unit are in fact a family." She also noted that "in the last five months, we have a 314 percent increase in adults and children arriving at the border fraudulently, claiming to be a family unit. This is obviously of concern."
A New York Times article fact-checked Nielsen's remarks and found that "there were 46 cases of fraudulent family claims in the 2017 fiscal year. In just the first five months of the 2018 fiscal year, there were 191 cases." The increase Nielsen cited is correct, but as the Times correctly stated, "those instances make up less than 1 percent of the families apprehended at the border." There may be an issue with fraudulent family claims, but if so the problem is very small in scope, and it has been irresponsibly portrayed by the administration and journalists alike.
In May, Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, responded to a round of stories about the federal government losing track of 1,500 children by declaring that they "deserve to be treated properly, not abused or trafficked." But the full context of the roughly 1,500 lost children has been widely misreported: They were unaccompanied minors who arrived alone at the border, not with parents. Many of them were released to sponsors—typically family members—by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement. In some cases, the children appear to have been "lost" when they went off the grid to avoid detection because their sponsors are in the country illegally.
Meanwhile, some right-wing outlets have returned to years-old stories of human trafficking, presumably to prove that the scourge of human trafficking is real, and that non-Republican presidents were complicit in it. The Daily Caller reported earlier this week that "The Obama administration handed off an unknown number of migrant minors into the custody of human traffickers under the assumption that these so-called 'caregivers' were related to the children."
It is technically true that the number is unknown, but the impression the Caller's description leaves is nonetheless misleading. An Associated Press report notes that out of roughly 90,000 children, a few dozen were placed in abusive conditions. Clearly, placing any child in harmful conditions is both sad and negligent. But there was no need for The Daily Caller to pepper their report with "trafficking" buzzwords.
Democrats aren't blameless either. The Keep Families Together Act, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein on June 7, nods to human trafficking in the text of the bill. But how often are children being brought into the country by human traffickers? Do the politicians sounding off about human trafficking actually have a sense of how widespread and pernicious the problem is, or are they just touting the same talking points that make people think they're doing something?
The lack of good data on the size and scope of the problem hasn't stopped the current administration from calling for draconian responses. In a radio interview on Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions floated the idea of using DNA tests to prove that immigrant children are, in fact, related to their parents. The federal government swabbing mouths or taking hair samples from people attempting to enter the country should sound like a terrible idea to any libertarian. And before that happens, it's worth taking steps to definitively determine the real scope of the alleged problem. Too many recent calls for action to combat human trafficking have been based on flimsy evidence (for example, the false notion that trafficking rises during the Superbowl and the World Cup). We should be very careful before expanding the already considerable power of the federal government to infringe on personal privacy.
Right now, however, we simply don't have reliable data. As Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote back in 2015, "Globally, some 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates. But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2006 described this figure as 'questionable' due to 'methodological weaknesses, gaps in data, and numerical discrepancies,' including the rather astonishing fact that 'the U.S. government's estimate was developed by one person who did not document all his work.'"
Human trafficking––and by extension, sex trafficking––claims are often trotted out with little evidence and plenty of hyperbole. It may feel good to speak out against what seem like clear and obvious injustices, especially when it comes to the fates of children crossing the southern border. But just as America's obsession with the war on drugs created terrible outcomes for people caught up in the crosshairs, the moral panic over human trafficking, which stems mostly from unsubstantiated claims, will create similarly bad outcomes––in many cases for the same people that politicians say they want to help.
If coercive human trafficking were as prevalent as many politicians claim, their proposed solutions might be slightly more justifiable. But they're not. Trump's hysterical claims won't solve any real problems. They might, however, be used to give the federal government license to expand its already bloated surveillance and law enforcement powers.