US trafficking 'rating' is no tribute
The 20th edition of the US State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, was released by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on June 25, marking two decades of American commitment to fighting human trafficking.
This occasion should have been a proud tribute to the report's bipartisan support and America's a leadership on a key global human rights and justice issues. However, by assigning the US a gold ranking, the report dealt another blow to US credibility and leadership in fighting modern slavery. This only adds to damage caused by the Trump administration policies that make it harder for trafficking victims to access protections in the United States. Those policies have hit migrant workers and unaccompanied minors crossing America's southern border most harshly.
The TIP report is unique: it not only assesses other governments' performance against international norms to address a human rights problem, but also assigns each government one of four grades or rankings. The lowest (tier 3) is applied to the worst performers. The top ranking (tier 1) is considered the gold star and awarded to those governments that "fully comply" with all four "minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking" set out in the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
The United States began evaluating itself alongside the 180 countries assessed by the TIP report in 2010. Adding the United States chapter to the report sent a message to the world that the US would hold itself to the same criteria as it holds other countries. This initiative, while well-intentioned, was disastrously executed. The US immediately catapulted itself to the top ranking.
Despite this "forever" gold status, the data presented in the report itself highlights several years of declining US anti-trafficking efforts at home. As the 2020 report admits, the US Government has "prosecuted fewer cases and secured fewer convictions against fewer traffickers, issued fewer victims trafficking-specific immigration benefits, and did not adequately screen vulnerable populations for human trafficking indicators". And this has been a three-year trend. Prosecutions of alleged traffickers in federal courts of trafficking crimes have declined 38%: from 553 in 2017 and to 343 in 2019.
On protections provided to foreign trafficking victims, the new report and previous editions note that the US government issued significantly fewer T-visas to foreign trafficking victims in each consecutive year since 2016 (when 748 were issued out of 955 requested); in 2017 (669 out of 1177 requests); in 2018 (576 out of 1613 requested); and in 2019 (500 out of 1242 requested). Conversely, the numbers of T-visa petitions disapproved has risen each year since 2016 -- from 175 to 365 in 2019. The TIP report discloses that legal service organisations helping victims petition for T-visas see increased obstacles to obtaining these visas. The new TIP report also notes an increase in DHS' processing time for the T-visa requests -- from 16-23.5 months in 2018 to 19.5-26.5 months in 2019.
ATEST, a leading coalition of anti-trafficking NGOs in the US, and others have called for the US to produce a more honest ranking of itself in the TIP report. Three months ago, Martina Vandenberg, the president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center in Washington, DC, observed in a New York Times op-ed: "Over the last three years we have watched with horror as the administration has dismantled protections for trafficking survivors." One of these horrors is a 2018 DHS policy of seeking the deportation of immigrants who have petitioned for T-visas but have had their petitions denied.
As the former coordinator within the State Department who edited and produced 10 TIP reports, this sustained tier 1 ranking reflects an egregious double standard; The TIP report regularly downgrades other countries demonstrating such a drop-off in progress.
The TIP report has for years enjoyed strong anti-trafficking currency around the world; governments, researchers, and NGOs have considered it as a reliable standard-bearer. That credibility has been underpinned by trust earned painstakingly through collaboration with other international leaders on the issue.
It has been built through partnerships with governments, NGOs and international organisations. The report has guided best practices on migration, labour issues, human rights conditions for migrants, and protections for trafficking victims. The Trump administration has reversed that collaboration. It has left the Global Compact on Migration; left the UN Human Rights Council (which oversees three special rapporteurs on human trafficking) which launched a US-only commission to develop new human rights standards; imposed oppressive restrictions on both foreign immigrants and non-immigrants seeking to enter the US; and ordered the incarceration or deportation of unaccompanied minors without adequate screening for trafficking indicators. These have all contributed to the erosion of authority behind America's leadership on human trafficking. Awarding the United States another unwarranted gold star will tarnish the report for years to come.
Mark B Taylor is an independent consultant on human trafficking issues, based in Southeast Asia. He served in the US State Department for 28 years, during which he was a senior coordinator for reporting and political affairs in its Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, leading a team of 15 human trafficking experts.