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President Trump’s fantastical human-trafficking claims

President Trump made several claims about sex trafficking across the southern border that would be stunning if they were accurate. (Video: Joy Sharon Yi, Meg Kelly/The Washington Post, Photo: Oliver Contreras/The Washington Post)

“Human trafficking by airplane is almost impossible. Human trafficking by van and truck, in the back seat of a car, and going through a border where there’s nobody for miles and miles, and there’s no wall to protect — it’s very easy. They make a right, then they make a left. They come into our country. And they sell people.”

— President Trump, remarks at an event on human trafficking, Feb. 1, 2019

“This really is an invasion of our country by human traffickers. These are people that are horrible people bringing in women mostly, but bringing in women and children into our country.”

— Trump, interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Feb. 3

“Human traffickers and sex traffickers take advantage of the wide-open areas between our ports of entry to smuggle thousands of young girls and women into the United States and to sell them into prostitution and modern-day slavery.”

— Trump, in his State of the Union address, Feb. 5

In making the case for a wall along the southern border, President Trump has increasingly drawn attention to the scourge of human trafficking. This is a serious issue, but one (like many underground crimes) that often is plagued by hyped statistics and fuzzy data.

The president is falling into the same trap, making statements that simply are not true or are unsupported by the data. He says that “human trafficking by airplane is almost impossible,” that there is “an invasion of our country by human traffickers,” and that “thousands of young girls and women” are smuggled across the border for prostitution. None of these statements are correct.

The Facts

Let’s start with the government’s own data. In fiscal 2018, the Justice Department initiated 230 human trafficking prosecutions. That’s an 18 percent decline from the year before, when 282 cases were brought.

The Justice Department regularly posts news releases about its human trafficking cases, and you have to dig far to find many that involve the southern border. Most of the cases involve U.S. citizens. The foreign national cases, contrary to Trump’s claims, generally used legal border crossings, visa fraud and airplanes.

In December, for instance, five defendants were found guilty of participating in a scheme that allegedly brought hundreds of Thai women into the United States to engage in the sex trade. The women came from poor areas of Thailand and were told they could earn money for their families back home.

“The organization also engaged in widespread visa fraud to facilitate the international transportation of the victims,” the Justice Department said. “Traffickers assisted the victims in obtaining fraudulent visas and travel documents by funding false bank accounts, creating fictitious backgrounds and occupations, and instructing the victims to enter into fraudulent marriages to increase the likelihood that their visa applications would be approved. Traffickers also coached the victims as to what to say during their visa interviews.”

Another recent case involved the son of the former president of Guinea, who along with his wife was convicted of keeping a West African girl enslaved in their Texas home for 16 years. She had come with them when they moved to the United States.

Trump at various times has described women as being kidnapped, “duct tape put around their face,” and smuggled across the border.

The Human Trafficking Legal Center, which assists victims, maintains a database of 1,435 federal court cases dating to 2009 and current as of six weeks ago. Martina Vandenberg, president of the organization, said that a search of the database found only 26 cases that included kidnapping charges and 29 that involved smuggling. There was only one case, in 2012, that mentioned “duct tape” — but that took place in Atlanta and involved a victim being required to wear duct tape during sex.

(Update, March 1: The New York Times reported it had found some instances of women being duct-taped and trafficked across the border, but “If the president was suggesting that such savagery occurs daily on America’s southern border, then he was indeed exaggerating.”)

Many of the cases involved just a single case of trafficking, such as the woman who smuggled another woman into the United States from Mexico to serve as a pregnancy surrogate but instead forced her to engage in domestic labor. Or there are cases involving U.S. citizens trafficking other U.S. citizens, such as the “Horse Block Pimpin’ ” prosecution, in which defendants trafficked 55 women mostly across the Mid-Atlantic region.

A recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics said that in fiscal 2015, 92.1 percent of the forced labor and sex trafficking cases and 92.5 percent of transportation for illegal sex activity cases involved U.S. citizens.

In his State of the Union address, the president referred to “thousands of young girls and women” being smuggled between ports of entry.

It’s unclear where Trump got that statistic — the White House did not respond to a request for comment — but he appears to have picked it up from a conversation with Tim Ballard, chief executive of the anti-trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad, during a White House event on human trafficking on Feb. 1. In an opinion column Feb. 4 for the Deseret News, Ballard wrote that “the State Department reports that around 10,000 children are smuggled into the U.S. annually and forced into the commercial sex trade.”

Ballard did not respond to a request for his source. The State Department has no records that would validate this claim.

“We have attempted to identify any State Department report that references that statistic, but have found none,” said a State Department spokesperson. “As a result, we cannot verify its origin.”

The Justice Department, however, said that in fiscal 2017, “the FBI identified nearly 450 victims of domestic minor sex trafficking and adult domestic and foreign national victims of sex and labor trafficking.” It’s unclear how many were from Central America, but clearly it’s less than “thousands.”

The State Department’s 2018 report on human trafficking also reports that grantees funded by DOJ between July 2016 and June 2017 reported 4,349 new clients for victims of child sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. But the report said only 34 percent were foreign nationals and one quarter were victims of labor trafficking. So again, it falls well short of “thousands” and certainly 10,000 being smuggled in for the sex trade.

More likely than not, those foreign nationals came through legal ports of entry. Data collected by the United Nations’ International Organization on Migration, analyzing 10 years of information on more than 90,000 victims, has found that 79 percent of international trafficking journeys “go through official border points, such as airports and land border control points.” The IOM said that “about a third of official border points are crossed by bus, another third by train, and 20 percent by plane.”

But the IOM also said that cases involved in sexual exploitation were more likely to travel through unofficial routes: “Sexual exploitation makes up 15 percent of official border crossings and 22 percent of nonofficial border crossings.” Children, especially those under 10, were also more likely to travel through unofficial entry points: "Out of all the children in the sample, nonofficial border points are used in 44 percent of cases, against 20 percent for adults.”

The anti-trafficking group Polaris has contributed to the IOM project. Brandon Bouchard, a spokesman for the group, said between 2015 and the middle of 2018, the group’s tips about human trafficking were basically split between U.S. citizens and foreign nationals. Of foreign nationals, the most frequently reported were Mexico (over 1,500 victims), Philippines (over 460 victims), Guatemala (over 380 victims), China (over 370 victims) and Honduras (over 290 victims).

(The U.S. government issues T visas to victims of trafficking. The Fact Checker was not able to obtain a breakdown of such visas by nationality, but a Jan. 18 notice in the Federal Register said that from fiscal 2014 through 2016, 40 percent of T-derivative visas, for family members, were issued by the U.S. Embassy in Manila. In 2017, there were 1,141 T-visa applications received from alleged victims and 672 approved, according to government data.)

But the main problem is labor trafficking, not sex trafficking. “For foreign nationals: 58.9 percent were labor trafficking victims, 6 percent were sex and labor trafficking victims, 28.3 percent were sex trafficking victims, and 6.9 percent the trafficking situation couldn’t be categorized based on the info provided,” Bouchard said.

“We know that the vast majority of victims who cross a border and are then trafficked in the United States arrive here through ports of entry and other legal means,” said Bradley Myles, chief executive of Polaris, in a Feb. 1 statement arguing a wall would not be effective in preventing human trafficking. “Many fly here and travel through U.S. airports.”

The Pinocchio Test

On just about every level, the president’s rhetoric on human trafficking far exceeds the available data, either from within the government or from outside sources. He earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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“Human traffickers and sex traffickers take advantage of the wide-open areas between our ports of entry to smuggle thousands of young girls and women into the United States and to sell them into prostitution and modern-day slavery.”
in the State of the Union addres
Tuesday, February 5, 2019