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Over 400,000 People Still Live in Slavery in the United States

If you live in the United States, the word “ slavery “ no doubt evokes images of a bygone, shameful era of our national history which found prosperity on the backs of people held in bondage. One might think of fuzzy black and white photographs or to perhaps the Civil War — something from this country’s dark past. Right?

The unfortunate reality is that slavery — which includes child marriages and forced labor — remains all too common throughout the modern world. And though the United States is far from the worst offender — that dubious honor goes to North Korea — today, many people still lack any semblance of freedom.

According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index report, more than 400,000 people were slaves in the United States during 2016 — an incredible figure for a horrific and inhumane practice that seems as antiquated as bloodletting and powdered wigs.

It should be noted that this figure is based on a relatively strict definition of slavery, and it does not include the thousands of individuals incarcerated within the United States who, per the Thirteenth Amendment, can legally be conscripted to perform labor for pennies on the hour — if for any pay at all.

Even though the slavery rate is comparatively low in the United States, the report conversely finds people here to be among the most vulnerable to being trafficked in the West. This is due, in no small part, to the federal government’s immigration policy, which makes it difficult for immigrants to achieve legal status — a key factor that encourages the exploitation of would-be migrants. Paired with the severe lack of enforcement of existing labor laws, the problem becomes especially compounded within the U.S.

This last point is a particularly important and often ignored issue when it comes to the immigration debate in the United States. Were employers who illegally exploit migrants to be held accountable for their actions, the face of human trafficking in the United States would be radically different.

Another crucial finding in the report is the consistent link between immigrant children who’ve gone through child welfare programs and a heightened vulnerability to being trafficked. Curiously enough, the U.S. State Department published its own annual report on human trafficking, which also cited the Trump administration’s family separation policy as a major factor in the trafficking of minors. With a weakened or severed family support network, children can easily fall victim to traffickers, and many youths are recruited in child detention facilities.

While there is now a moratorium on the practice, many migrant children remain unaccounted for and separated from their families. To believe none of them have fallen into the hands of human traffickers would be naive.

If the United States aims to minimize human trafficking and migrant exploitation domestically, government officials should actually enforce labor laws, rather than pouring resources into Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Originally published at Care2.com on Aug. 15, 2018.

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