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Human Smuggling or Human Trafficking? They're Two Very Different Crimes

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The discovery of a stifling tractor-trailer in San Antonio this weekend – packed with nearly 40 undocumented immigrants – is reverberating across the country. Ten people have died as a result of the possible human trafficking incident.

Since the case first came to light, some sources in the media have been using the terms 'human trafficking' and 'human smuggling' interchangeably. But they're two very different crimes.

"I think people are confused about the difference between human smuggling and human trafficking because they often blend into each other," says Kerry Ward, an associate professor of history at Rice University who studies forced migration. "But they're distinct crimes. Human trafficking is a crime against a person while human smuggling is a crime against a border."

Human trafficking doesn't necessarily involve movement. People can be trafficked for forced labor purposes anywhere, even in their own homes.

Smuggling, on the other hand, involves transporting people illegally across a border. 

"Now sometimes the people who are engaged in being smuggled have done so voluntarily, so they've paid money to be shipped across the border," Ward says. "What often happens is that these people become vulnerable to further exploitation and become trafficked when they are held against their will, often for labor purposes."

Human trafficking victims have more options for legal recourse according to Stacie Jonas, Managing Attorney for Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. 

"Victims of human trafficking are eligible for certain legal remedies and protections that are not always available to people who were smuggled," says Jonas. 

Right now, Jonas says it appears the case in San Antonio is being charged as a crime involving smuggling. She says she hopes that the people recovered from the tractor trailer should be screened to determine if they are also victims of trafficking.