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Human Trafficking and Smuggling

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) enforces a wide range of crimes related to border security, including investigations of human smuggling and human trafficking. In fact, ICE is one of the primary federal agencies responsible for combating human trafficking.

According to the U.S. Department of State, the United States is a destination country for thousands of men, women, and children trafficked from all areas of the world. These victims are trafficked for the purposes of sexual and labor exploitation. Many of these victims are lured from their homes with false promises of well-paying jobs; instead, they are forced or coerced into prostitution, domestic servitude, farm or factory labor or other types of forced labor.

Victims often find themselves in a foreign country and cannot speak the language. Traffickers frequently take away the victims' travel and identity documents, telling them that if they attempt to escape, the victims or their families back home will be harmed, or the victims' families will assume the debt. We recognize that men, women and children that are encountered in brothels, sweat shops, massage parlors, agricultural fields and other labor markets may be forced or coerced into those situations and potentially are trafficking victims.

Trafficking vs. Smuggling: What's the Difference?

Human trafficking and human smuggling are distinct criminal activities, and the terms are not interchangeable. 

Human trafficking centers on exploitation and is generally defined as:

  • Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or
  • Recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.

Human smuggling centers on transportation and is generally defined as:

  • Importation of people into the United States involving deliberate evasion of immigration laws. This offense includes bringing illegal noncitizens into the country, as well as the unlawful transportation and harboring of noncitizens already in the United States.

Human Trafficking Indicators

Human trafficking indicators include:

  • Does the victim possess identification and travel documents? If not, who has control of these documents?
  • Did the victim travel to a destination country for a specific job or purpose and is victim engaged in different employment than expected?
  • Is victim forced to perform sexual acts as part of employment?
  • Is the victim a juvenile engaged in commercial sex?
  • Does the victim owe money to an employer or does the employer hold wages?
  • Did the employer instruct the victim on what to say to law enforcement or immigration officials?
  • Can the victim freely leave employment or the situation?
  • Are there guards at work/harboring site or video cameras to monitor and ensure no one escapes?
  • Does the victim have freedom of movement? Can they freely contact family and friends? Can they socialize or attend religious services?

ICE's Role in Combating Smuggling and Trafficking

ICE works with its law enforcement partners to dismantle the global criminal infrastructure engaged in human smuggling and human trafficking. ICE accomplishes this mission by making full use of its authorities and expertise, stripping away assets and profit incentive, collaborating with U.S. and foreign partners to attack networks worldwide and working in partnership with nongovernmental organizations to identify, rescue and provide assistance to trafficking victims.

Victim-Centered Approach

ICE recognizes that in order to successfully investigate and prosecute traffickers, victims must be stable and free from fear and intimidation to be effective witnesses. Equal value is placed on the identification and rescue of victims and the prosecution of traffickers. ICE has more than 350 collateral duty victim/witness coordinators who work with NGOs to assist in the provision of victim services. Short-term immigration relief is provided to certified victims of trafficking in the form of continued presence status.

Recent Anti-Human Trafficking Successes

Trafficker Arrested in Cameroon

In Baltimore, a 10-year-old girl from Cameroon was brought to the United States for the purpose of domestic servitude and subjected to physical abuse and isolation. The trafficker fled the United States and was later arrested in Cameroon. The trafficker was brought back to the United States to serve a 17-year sentence for involuntary servitude and harboring for financial gain. The trafficker was ordered to pay $100,000 in restitution to the victim.

Sex Traffickers Sentenced to 40 years

In Los Angeles, 15 women and girls were forced by a family-run human trafficking organization into prostitution. As a result of the investigation, seven Guatemalan and two Mexican nationals were found guilty of conspiracy, sex trafficking of children by force and importation and harboring of illegal noncitizens for purposes of prostitution. They received prison sentences ranging from two to 40 years depending on their level of involvement.

Traffickers Arrested in Hair Braiding Salon

In Newark, 20 young women and girls from Togo and Ghana were brought to the United States through a visa scheme, forced to work in hair braiding salons under appalling conditions, and subjected to physical abuse and threats. Six traffickers from Togo entered guilty pleas or were convicted by a jury for offenses involving forced labor, conspiracy, document servitude, visa fraud, transportation of a minor across state lines to engage in criminal sexual activity and noncitizen smuggling.

Cooperation with Mexican Law Enforcement Rescues 24 Victims

In New York, an ICE-led investigation, in collaboration with the Government of Mexico, targeted a trafficking organization that smuggled Mexican women into the United States and then subjected them to commercial sexual exploitation. Twenty-four women were forced into prostitution at brothels on the East Coast through threats of violence against them and their children. The principal traffickers were sentenced to terms of imprisonment from 25 to 50 years each. The mother of the main defendants was arrested in Mexico and later extradited to the United States where she was sentenced to 10 years in prison for her involvement in the scheme.

Russian, Ukrainian and Czech Labor Trafficking Victims Rescued in Detroit

In Detroit, a concerned citizen reported women being forced to work against their will as exotic dancers. Ten women were brought to the United States through a visa fraud scheme where they were forced to work as dancers through threats of violence, sexual abuse and threats of jail and deportation. The investigation resulted in the arrest and indictment of nine defendants. All of the defendants pleaded guilty and their sentences ranged from probation to 14 years imprisonment.

Domestic Servitude Victim Rescued on Long Island

On New York's Long Island, ICE agents arrested a husband and wife as a result of a domestic servitude investigation. The couple was alleged to have held two Indonesian females in their residence where they were forced to perform domestic services. They were found guilty by a jury of forced labor, peonage, document servitude, harboring noncitizens and conspiracy. The wife was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment and her husband was sentenced to three years. The jury ordered that their residence, valued at $1.5 million, be criminally forfeited in order to assist with victim restitution.