I blogged recently about the concerns I had when I read the statements Hilary Clinton made in her Senate confirmation testimony related to the issue of sex trafficking.  I heard little sign in her testimony of a desire to change policy from the crusade undertaken by the Bush Administration that overdetermined the problem of human trafficking in sexual terms (thereby ignoring the enormous problem of other forms of forced labor), driven largely by an evangelistic judgment about sex work more generally.

But the State Department through the policy set by its Secretary is not where we can find the front line of the federal government’s efforts to combat human trafficking.  That job falls to the Department of “Homeland” Security (I hate that term), particularly to ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement) which conducts raids of brothels and other workplaces where it suspects undocumented and/or trafficked persons may be working.   Indeed, ICE raids have been the U.S. government’s principal means of identifying victims of trafficking according to a recent GAO report.

So, was Janet Napolitano asked about her views on human trafficking in general, or sex trafficking in particular, when she came before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs for confirmation?  Nope.

Did she volunteer anything about this issue, as did Clinton in her confirmation hearings?  Nope.

Surely Secretary Napolitano has views on this issue, but we don’t know them yet.  When you go to the “Homeland” Security website the 2008-2013 Strategic Plan, developed by the old Secretary Chertoff but still on the website, does not even mention trafficking.  Yet if you go to ICE’s “What We’ve Done Lately On Human Trafficking and Smuggling” Webpage they highlight all manner of good things they’ve been up to, but few of them are trafficking-related.  Lots of smuggling work (and trafficking is legally and socially a different thing from smuggling), and a bunch of arrests of “illegal aliens.” The two most recent trafficking cases involve raids of brothels in Seattle and  South Florida, both last November.

It’s too early to know what kind of policy will be set by Secretary Napolitano with respect to domestic enforcement of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.  But she and her policy team are without question important players in setting a new agenda when it comes to the problem of relying too heavily on raids to deal with the protection of trafficked persons and the prosecution of traffickers.  (More about this below.)  For the moment however, we have some reason to be concerned.

Timothy Keefer remains as Napolitano’s Chief Counsel for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at ICE.  Keefer, a graduate of William and Mary Law School worked for Covington and Burling after clerking a couple years.  In late 2000, after three months at the firm, he was sent to Florida to work on George W. Bush’s legal team seeking to secure him a win in the contested presidential election.  He was rewarded for that service by the new administration with an appointment as special assistant to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Acting Solicitor Eugene Scalia (Antonin’s son).  He could be a good guy, but …  So far, none of Napolitano’s senior appointments have much of a track record in dealing with gender issues.

(Keefer’s ongoing employment at ICE may signal a much larger problem for the Obama Administration – the presence of Bush loyalists deep into every crevice of the federal government, as both political and career employees.  It’s not obvious that the new administration has the will or the capacity to clear out the thousands of neo-cons who were given government jobs for ideological reasons.  The scandal of politically motivated appointments at the Justice Department is just the tip of the iceberg.)

As for ICE’s overreliace on raids to protect the victims of trafficking, the Sex Workers Project in New York has just issued a report, Kicking Down the Door: The Use of Raids to Fight Trafficking in Persons, in which it documents how in the name of “rescue” these raids often result in the arrest, detention and deportation of trafficked persons because they are undertaken by ICE, together with local law enforcement officers, who are poorly trained or ill-equipped in identifying victims of trafficking, and who are, after all, focused on arresting criminals, people who pose potential terror threats, are dealing drugs and/or are sans papiers, that is, found without necessary paperwork demonstrating legal presence in the U.S.

I urge all who are concerned about this issue to read the Sex Workers Project report and to monitor the new team and policy being developed at Janet Napolitano’s “Homeland” Security and ICE.

– Katherine Franke


  1. Thanks for hitting the high points on U.S. anti-trafficking policy! Since Secretary Clinton, along with the late Senator Wellstone, were primary targets of the neo-con/evangelical “soft on trafficking” smears back in the 1990s it seems unlikely that she’d be enthusiastic about leaving smear-artists like Keefer being left in charge of enforcement over at Homeland Security. On the other hand she’s going to be pretty busy just cleaning up after eight years of Bush-era malevolence. So I think it’ll be really important who she chooses to run the trafficking desk at State.

    It’s not that sex trafficking isn’t important (*quite* the opposite!) it’s that a) it’s not a black-and-white issue and b) the prior policies of shutting down only sex trafficking while leaving the much larger global infrastructure for agricultural, industrial, and domestic trafficking intact makes it way too easy for sex-trafficking to rebound.

    Thanks again,


  2. Hello, Katherine, remember when I said I knew you’d be commenting on trafficking soon?

    I think it’s obvious that the trafficking issue has gone up into the cultural stratosphere along with terrorism and security. So it isn’t reasonable to imagine that Clinton and Obama won’t feel called to be heroes in that crusade. It might be possible to shift some of the more egregious aspects of current policy but both Left and Right, and middle and centre and ambiguous parties, all believe this is a particularly vile scourge – the sexual one, I mean.

    I’m going to start writing about the idea of Gender Equality as it’s being discussed now. I live in a European country that considers itself to be on the cutting edge of GE, and understanding how we got here feels crucial.

    Meanwhile, I also believe that pushing at cultural ideas about prostitution is super necessary. Did you read my Do you know whether or not you are a prostitute? http://www.nodo50.org/Laura_Agustin/are-you-a-prostitute-asks-a-shanghai-sign

    Best, Laura

  3. Very interesting blog. I do believe trafficking is a huge issue everywhere. Especially the trafficking of children. But as you say it is not as easy as highlighting the issues and forming a plan because these people are ruthless and will do anything to keep their “business” going. It needs to have a stop put to it now though!

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