A partially nude young woman, covering herself with a bright red pillow, is cowering in the corner of a bedroom. Two officers in uniforms reading “Police” and “HSI” approach her, and one reaches out a hand. This is the photo promoting “victim assistance” by Immigration and Customs Enforcement—they, along with Homeland Security Investigations, are part of the Department of Homeland Security—and it illustrates a social media campaign coinciding with this year’s human trafficking awareness month.
Officially, it’s “National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month,” as established by President Obama in 2010 and redeclared by President Trump during his first year in office. To state the obvious, dedicating a month to the issue has done nothing to meaningfully address human trafficking. And Trump, in particular, has perpetuated more racist and xenophobic myths about trafficking than perhaps any of his predecessors. He does this while also actively harming people who have been trafficked: holding up housing aid, slashing legal funding, and making it even harder for immigrant victims to get visas (which, if denied, could mean being deported).
For more than a decade, the arrival of this month has meant very little beyond press releases and bad reporting. More than centering the needs of victims of trafficking or providing anything close to useful public education, it’s been an opportunity for almost any federal agency, elected official, or nongovernment organization to self-promote.
Numbers meant to look like human trafficking data are circulated, as unverified calls to hotlines are cited, incorrectly, as confirmed cases of trafficking. Local television news spreads stories of traffickers allegedly lurking everywhere: In the last week alone, phantom traffickers were reported at Walmart, at Target, at Whole Foods, and at a mall in Connecticut. Law enforcement debunks these rumors while simultaneously telling people that anyone, anywhere can be a trafficker. Across social media, people pose for photos wearing blue—the Dallas Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission, the employees of the AT&T store on Boylston Street in Boston—and they, along with the FBI and In-N-Out Burger, all ask that the public help “raise awareness.” (All of this is the trafficking version of the war on terror edict, “If you see something, say something.”)
But that awareness also masks a significant truth: When a newly “aware” member of the public reports what they see, they may unknowingly set into motion a traumatic raid, arrest, detention, or deportation. The same agencies “raising awareness” this month are also putting victims of human trafficking at risk and subjecting total strangers to racial profiling and potentially dangerous interactions with law enforcement.
Prosecutors like Nancy O’Malley, district attorney of Alameda County, California, rarely miss an awareness month. This year, she used the occasion to unveil a series of anti-trafficking billboards. (As she did in 2018—“Human Trafficking Is Real. And It’s Here. Join the Fight.”—and every year since 2013.) She says she takes pride in her office’s specialized anti-trafficking program, both its tough prosecutions and the way it trains law enforcement to “think of themselves as protectors of youth rather than enforcers,” as the American Bar Association described it in 2019. The program also promotes its own hotline for anonymous tips. In a statement announcing it, O’Malley told the public, “Give us the details, and we will do the rest.”
But when a teenager said multiple police officers in O’Malley’s county engaged in sex acts with her while she was a minor, O’Malley was unable to hold them accountable. The survivor said the officers all knew she was underage and that she was in the sex trade—some would even tip her off about upcoming stings in exchange for sex.
The East Bay Express exposed these officers and others in 2016, which is when O’Malley said she first heard about the allegations. Shortly afterward, she suspended one investigator in her office, saying in a statement: “I can firmly state that we do not and will not turn a blind eye to human trafficking or the sexual exploitation of a minor, whether the offender is a civilian or a law enforcement officer.” Later she announced she would charge seven officers; none were charged with trafficking. One officer pleaded guilty to failing to report the abuse, a misdemeanor. In the end, though, O’Malley’s cases against the cops fell apart. In 2019, Oakland Police released an internal affairs report on the incident, under new public records laws. They found that one of their officers engaged in attempted forced sodomy, while another engaged in lewd conduct in public. Two additional officers had sent sexually explicit texts and are still on the job, even after being disciplined by their department. This year, the Alameda County District Attorney’s billboard campaign encourages the public to “take the pledge” to “combat human trafficking in all forms.”
Sexual misconduct and abuse by police is common, while accountability is rare. A week before this year’s trafficking prevention month kicked off, the Colorado newspaper Today’s News-Herald revealed that HSI agents had sought and engaged in sexual services with women working in a massage business, during what they said was an undercover anti-trafficking investigation. Now those agents refuse to testify in court. (“As a matter of policy, we do not comment on pending litigation,” a public affairs officer for ICE said in a statement to the News-Herald. “However, lack of comment should not be construed as an agreement with or stipulation to any of the allegations.”)
The sex acts the agents engaged in, under deception, are detailed in the unredacted reports obtained by Today’s News-Herald. As the local police chief told the paper, HSI “took the lead” in this investigation, and, as he understands it, DHS policy permits undercover agents to “participate in sex acts” with the women. These are the women the agency describes as victims of human trafficking, and this is the agency that urges the public, all this month, to report suspected victims of human trafficking to it.