When Nice Policies Kill

How being nice ended in trafficking vulnerable children

You’re a parent in rural Guatemala, earning $2 a day. Your son is seven, your daughter is nine. There’s a strained sense of uncertainty over the village, the soil quality declining as local agricultural laborers fight to keep their ever-decreasing wages. Your hands are scarred with lines from picking all day, your legs weakened after decades of hard labor. Your children have two roles in life mapped out to them: become field workers like mom and dad, harvesting sugar or coffee, or move to the cities where they are likely to be caught up in a hard, unforgiving life between service jobs in the slums. You live in a two room hut and the roof leaks. Life expectancy is just seventy, over ten years fewer than those up north. As you look out of the door at your children playing, you wonder what you can do to give them a better life than the one fate has rolled for you.

A rumor is going around at work. Traffickers from further down the hills are saying that if your children go to the border alone, the President is going to let them in. People in America have free education, great healthcare, even social support. They give you a house when you arrive for free, and you get whatever food you want. Even the poorest Americans earn a hundred dollars in a single day, more than you could earn in six months. They don’t even need the language to speak English. You don’t need it to pick fruit. All they have to do, the rumor goes, is pay the traffickers $600 to take them through Mexico to the edge of the desert. It’s not really a desert, the Americans say that to detract migrants. More of a grassland. They just have to walk north for a day, straight ahead, and you’ll be in the clear. They can be doctors, lawyers, footballers, film stars, anything they want. For just $600. Besides, they’ll starve here.

Would you pay it?

Of course, the grassland turns out not to be grassland at all. It’s a huge, vast, unforgiving stretch of sand that burns into your eyes. It’s the hottest desert in Mexico. Some people call it the Death Sentence desert, because if you get lost in it, you aren’t going to get out. First your water runs out, on the first day, then you get disoriented. By the second day, you start hallucinating. It’s a four or five day march, but the traffickers forget that bit. And it isn’t straight north, it’s a winding, snaking path around boulders, sharp miles of cacti and poisonous snakes and hungry coyotes. They won’t tell you that you can find the rosary beads of the dead every few minutes, the bones bleached in the sun of people who have been long forgotten in the dust. This is no place for children.

Of course, you might have a nice trafficker. Perhaps they truly do care if the children survive, and will accompany them through the desert as they have been paid to do. Better yet, perhaps they will pay for airconditioned cars and fresh water and food for your child as they are smuggled up through the borders of Mexico and the US. Maybe they’ll even drive them over the gushing rivers, deserts and wastelands themselves, facing fines and prison. Perhaps they really will ensure they get put with a nice, well-off family that will see they aren’t exploited or abused. Perhaps. As a parent facing desperation, hope is a powerful antidote to fear.

Of course, the kind of people who want to deal in smuggled children are rarely the moral heroes we may hope exist. Many children trafficked through Latin America and the Carribbean, and even further afield, talk about bad men who wanted favors and touching on the way there. Others talk about being sold to pick fruit for fourteen hours straight, and do things they didn’t want to do. Some don’t even make it to the US border: the traffickers took them instead to the cities and mass farms to work in child brothels, plantations and sweatshops. The slave industry isn’t just alive, it’s booming, and children and vulnerable adults are the product of choice. Ideally, exploiters want slaves who don’t speak English, are terrified of the authorities and will never be able to run away or give testimony against them. 40.3 million people are slaves, right now: 24.9 million are trafficked for sex and forced labor.

Many of those are just children.

When we talk about any policy, we can’t just be nice. We have to think about how it will work in the real world. Rhetoric around ‘children in cages’ burns deep: understandably, detaining minors and separating them from their families is a highly emotive issue that stirs up very real, visceral anger in any one with a heart. But the solution to inhumane treatment at the border does not mean creating lazy, dangerous policies that endanger children further.

There’s a reason we can’t let everyone entering illegally in, however blood curdling the poverty, persecution, and suffering of Latin America may be: it would encourage nearly half of the southern continent, up to a staggering 324,421,500 people (the demographic beneath the poverty line) to emigrate north in caravans and marches, something that is not feasible either in economic or infrastructural terms: the USA would need to double the number of cities, water reserves, jobs, schools, hospitals and colleges to sustain itself at the same quality of life. To resettle populations of that size, particularly by giving a free pass to traffickers to assist them in enter the country illegally, you would be dealing with unprecedented slavery, smuggling and abuse for millions of innocent people. The same is tragically just as true for children.

Smugglers are not nice people. Traffickers are not nice people. The global trafficking industry is fueled off gang warfare, drug smuggling, sex slavery, violence and the illegal arms trade. We would be endangering thousands of innocent children by implying that we would waive the illegality of unlawful entry if they were alone: children as young as three don’t travel alone, they don’t decide to migrate across an entire continent. There is the dark shadow of child slavery and abuse just inches behind every single child who makes it into the US.

I’m pro-immigration: I’m planning on moving to the US myself. I believe America’s immigration policies are far too tight, and the data overwhelmingly suggests that Americans, even Republicans, grossly over estimate the number of people allowed in legally by the millions. In reality, the vast majority of Americans answer polls by stating they would accept more asylum seekers than the quota currently allows, and are unaware that those with a job offer in the US still cannot emigrate, even at a high salary. We can and must reform immigration to allow demand to be met, and to grow our industries and taxes back to pre-COVID levels and beyond. For every immigrant that enters the US legally, five jobs are created: and not just service jobs. Immigrants and the children of immigrants are twice as likely to set up businesses, invent products, and create medicines and vaccines than those born in the US.

But it must be legal. We must create safe, legal pathways to citizenship and work visas that work, even for that poor family in Guatemala. Even allowing them to work, documented, for a single year on a visa, would create enough financial support for them to improve their communities and standard of living back home, decreasing the need for their community to emigrate, and safely funnel income back into the US economy. There is absolutely no reason at all to believe that the US job market is oversaturated for immigrant labor: many businesses are unable to hire fast enough in service, agricultural, cleaning and manufacturing sectors just to meet demand. The kind of jobs that the immigrant population south of the border are applying to are very much not the kind that American citizens actually apply for: which are far more likely to require strong spoken English (cashiers, bank tellers, spoken service, call centers).

Don’t let racism, or ‘niceness’ stand in the way of doing what all children deserve:

A chance at a safe, happy life free of abuse and slavery.

The buzzwords kill.

Anthropologist with an awful lot to say about everything. Opinions entirely my own. Usually. madelaine@madelainehanson.co.uk

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