Fronteras: The Racist History Of U.S. Trafficking Laws | Texas Public Radio

Fronteras: The Racist History Of U.S. Trafficking Laws

Jun 19, 2020

When it comes to human trafficking, victims and perpetrators haven’t always been clearly defined within the United States’ legal history.

Annie Isabel Fukushima examines the racist and colonialist history that shaped U.S. trafficking laws and how they impact Asian and Latinx migrants in her book, Migrant Crossings: Witnessing Human Trafficking in the U.S.

Credit David Drummond

The history of human trafficking is long and complicated that’s shaped by race and discrimination. 

The Mann Act of 1910, also known as the “White-Slave Traffic Act” made it illegal to transport women — white women, specifically — across state lines for “immoral purposes,” such as sexual slavery and prostitution. 

But women in Texas at the time were not seen as victims in need of rescue.

Mexican and Chinese trafficking survivors were still denied citizenship or legal status, and the Mann Act was also used to target individuals based on their race or political beliefs.

Fukushima is an assistant professor in the Ethnic Studies Division in the School for Cultural and Social Transformation at the University of Utah. Her book, Migrant Crossings takes a look at the complicated web of victimhood and criminality of trafficking and the complicated history of the anti-trafficking movement.

“It is connected to so many other social issues,” said Fukushima. “Such as food access, housing access, labor rights, right around our bodies and sexuality, racism, the list goes on.”

The law that defines human trafficking in the U.S. today dates back to 2000. Under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, survivors must prove they were victims of a “severe” form of trafficking, must help prosecute their trafficker, and must also be fearful of retaliation. In other words, one must be a “perfect victim.”

Witnesses hold the key to whether a trafficking survivor can jump through social and judicial hurdles to receive protections, or whether a trafficker will see justice.

Fukushima has served as a witness in trafficking cases and argues that witnessing isn’t simply passive, it’s active and must be unsettled.

“And this is really informed by theories in women of color, transnational feminisms, anticolonial feminisms,” said Fukushima. “These theories are really helping me to understand what it means to enact an unsettled witnessing.”

Norma Martinez can be reached at and on Twitter @NormDog1 and Lauren Terrazas can be reached at and on Twitter @terrazas_lauren.