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The Distinction Between and Response to Human Trafficking and Smuggling

December 14, 2022


Joe Whitley and Gus Coldebella

In recent years, politicians have often used the terms “human trafficking” and “human smuggling” interchangeably when speaking about the challenge at the United States-Mexico border. Democrats and Republicans alike have a history of conflating the two distinct, yet sometimes interrelated, issues: human smuggling and human trafficking. Both are criminal acts that should be investigated and prosecuted. However, to respond to each effectively, they must be understood as distinct phenomena.

The most prominent feature that differentiates smuggling and trafficking is coercion. Whereas human smuggling involves voluntary participation, human trafficking victims are defrauded or physically forced into their position. Furthermore, while smuggling implies cross-border movement, human trafficking does not necessarily involve victims migrating, whether legally or illegally. In fact, the term “trafficking” could technically describe an instance in which someone is held hostage in their own home.

Some of the confusion between these terms originates from insufficient data on the number of human trafficking victims and smuggled migrants. The intentionally covert nature of these crimes means it is difficult to track the magnitude of their occurrences. However, it is generally understood that instances of human trafficking identified by authorities represent only a small fraction of the total number of human trafficking cases in the United States.

The U.S. government’s responses to these issues have been a step in the right direction, although further work is necessary. In response to human trafficking, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has established the Blue Campaign, a training program that teaches professionals in the hospitality and transportation industries to identify and report potential instances of human trafficking. Likewise, U.S. government agencies have joined forces to execute Operational Sentinel, which targets the transnational criminal organizations that smuggle migrants across the border. According to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel, the operation intends to specifically hinder criminal organizations’ ability to profit off smuggling by freezing the assets of known associates and revoking smugglers’ travel documents.

To prevent these crimes in the future, the United States must prosecute both smugglers and traffickers. In the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, the United States and countries throughout Latin America agreed to “combat smuggling of migrants and trafficking in persons” and “[expand] collaboration to prosecute migrant smuggling and human trafficking criminal organizations.” These countries must make good on that promise. The United States should not be the only country prosecuting illegal border crossings; networks of smugglers harm every country involved.

Trafficking and smuggling present very real threats to the security of the United States. As such, both crimes must receive adequate attention, funding, and resources. However, conflating the two issues risks failing to properly hold smuggled migrants accountable for contracting to be illegally brought into the United States and further victimizing migrants who have been truly trafficked. Leaders and officials must understand the distinction between these criminal actions in order to assign resources in a way that results in meaningful enforcement.

This post drew from the white paper “The Distinction Between and Response to Human Trafficking and Smuggling” written by Joe Whitley and Gus Coldebella for CNSI. You can read the full paper here.

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