EDITORIAL: Public awareness needed to fight human trafficking

Monday is the World Day Against the Trafficking of Persons. Various United Nations offices designate July 30 as a day to increase awareness and encourage more efforts to fight one of the worst scourges of humanity.

The groups consider it a modern form of slavery, and work to educate the police forces and courts around the world, as well as the public, to find and punish human traffickers and protect their victims.

As we’re well aware in South Texas, the problem is just as prevalent in the United States as elsewhere. Hardly a week goes by in the Rio Grande Valley without news of law enforcement agencies finding immigrants trapped in stash houses or locked in semi-trailers, sometimes dead or dying due to heat and lack of ventilation.

The U.N. organizations differentiate trafficking from human smuggling we also see here. Smugglers enter into consensual agreements with immigrants to bring them across undetected. The key is consent. Once they’ve been paid, smugglers generally let their clients go on their way.

Traffickers hold migrants against their will, often subjecting them to abuse or forced labor that can include domestic or field work and even rape. The key is exploitation.

Cases can begin as consensual transactions, with migrants hiring traffickers to take them across the border. Once the migrants are in their care, the traffickers hold them against their will, using them or selling them as forced labor or as hostages to extort money from relatives.

Those who work daily to fight human trafficking, and address the needs of the often traumatized victims they encounter, deserve our support and encouragement.

We also should work to convince U.S. officials that the increasingly punitive measures they are taking against undocumented migrants only add to their abuse. Most of them come to escape desperate poverty, war and gang violence, and they justifiably believe that even an extended stay in a U.S. detention center is better than an early trip to the grave.

This administration’s current policy won’t stop the flow of immigration, but it will drive many to seek the aid of human smugglers who can turn into their captors and abusers.

It is imperative, therefore, for our congressional representatives and the public at large to fight for immigration reform that can address current backlogs and reduce the chances that people will entrust their lives to human traffickers who don’t deserve that trust.