Stuck in trafficking

The average legislative proposition which receives inclusion on California’s ballot is by no means unimpeachable, whatever its supporters may write. Indeed, much as the democratic process is glorified within American political culture, it is often the case that the ballot initiative process generally, and California’s ballot initiative process in particular, is nothing more than a legislative soapbox through which partisan interests can enforce their desires. 

So needless to say, it is a true shock when a ballot initiative comes along whose intent is truly unimpeachable. Funnily enough, however, this may be precisely what has happened, given that the interest group California Against Slavery (CAS) has recently been making great efforts to have an anti-human trafficking ballot initiative placed on the ballot. According to CAS, the purpose of the bill is to “revise state law to increase the sentences and fines for human trafficking offenses, add the sex trafficking of minors as a distinct type of a trafficking offense, mandate human trafficking training for law enforcement officers, and improve victims’ restitution rights,” all with the goal of eradicating human trafficking or, as they call it, the “modern day form of slavery.”

Naturally, the idea of ending human trafficking is hardly controversial – one can quibble, for instance, about the best means to do it (some argue that the revenue generated by illegal drugs funds illicit trafficking, while others argue for close partnerships between private enterprise and government) – but there’s little doubt that doing it successfully is a universally agreed upon moral end.  As such, one of the issues to consider in addressing most bills – the moral content of its intentions – can be safely dispensed with when considering the bill currently being floated by CAS. All that remains now is to ask the more difficult and more sobering question of whether the means put forward by CAS could actually help solve the problem of human trafficking.

As with most analyses of new policies, the answer to this question is largely speculative and highly complicated. However, at first read, it seems very unlikely, its crusading rhetorical defenders aside, that the bill itself will actually curb sex trafficking in any meaningful sense simply because it relies on an overly restrictive strategy. That is, the bill treats human trafficking solely as a law enforcement problem, which it undoubtedly is, but seemingly without any consideration of the larger factors which promote the vile institution in question. 

Let’s begin with the first problem with the bill – namely, what it leaves out. While the bill does carry hefty penalties for those convicted of human trafficking, as well as crisp demands for legal restitution, it ignores two fundamental elements – one economic, one legal – which inadvertently promote the spread of human trafficking. As far as the economic issue goes, the bill seems to completely lack the awareness that, like slavery before it, human trafficking is a business. Moreover, it is a business which demands high levels of logistical skill, expert training in evading the law and an established command over the arts of illicit persuasion. 

In short, it is a business with very, very high barriers to entry. As such, the only person who could possibly be deterred by the bill – namely, the proverbial “entry level” human trafficker – might not even exist. Human trafficking often dovetails with other crimes, especially drug trafficking and prostitution, each of which are potential areas for a prospective human trafficker to hone his skills, so much so that by the time such a person actually begins trafficking in humans, the list of legal infractions arrayed against him will make the bill’s worst punishments seem like a walk in the park. Moreover, the bill ignores the fact that economic trafficking is expensive and dangerous, and requires sources of funding – funding which often comes from one of the two professions already mentioned. As such, both economic and legal reforms targeted at those two industries are far more likely to hit the highly specialized area of human trafficking by extension, and twice as hard as anything which treats only the most morally objectionable symptom. 

More importantly still, the bill ignores and arguably even incentivizes one of the key causal factors behind human trafficking in the first place – namely, lax immigration law. Like it or not, it is no accident that California is the State considering this law, given its cavalier attitude toward maintaining its maritime and Southern borders. Any bill which is trying to rectify the international spread of human trafficking ought to address this issue, and yet one searches CAS’ bill in vain for any mention of immigration whatsoever. Moreover, because of the extensive rights afforded to victims under the CAS bill, it is only a matter of time before some ingenious legal authority finds a way to shoehorn automatic amnesty into the bill for all those brought into the United States against their will – a counterproductive result both from the standpoint of the rule of law and from the standpoint of stopping human trafficking, since it encourages desperate parents to sell their children into slavery on the off-chance that their enslaver will be caught, and the children permitted to live out their lives in a better place.

Finally, given its overly expansive definition of human trafficking and its unfunded demands on California law enforcement agencies, the bill may actually distract from the complicated task of fighting human trafficking by spreading existing law enforcement resources extremely thin and obfuscating the issue of what human trafficking actually is. It may be morally satisfying, as the bill mandates, to chase after every pimp who hires desperate girls a few years shy of their eighteenth birthday and slap him with a human trafficking violation, but there is a conceptual and moral distinction between that sort of sleaze and the sort of complete monster who lures children into literal slavery under the cover of lax immigration law and/or undereducation and cold-bloodedly uses them for whatever pleasures his depraved clients see fit. Let us lock up all of the latter before we begin to concern ourselves with the former.