Beck, O'Keefe Exploit Trafficking Victims for Political Purposes

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Trafficking image.jpg

The blogosphere and cable news have been talking for the last week or so about James O'Keefe and his hidden camera video of ACORN employees in Baltimore. O'Keefe posed as a pimp and brought along college student Hannah Giles to pose as a prostitute who worked for him. He led two ACORN employees through an elaborate scenario in which he solicited advice on how to circumvent U.S. tax laws to run a brothel using underage undocumented Salvadoran prostitutes. Two ACORN employees proceeded to give him the advice he asked for.

I watched the video recently. Those employees were fired and rightly so. ACORN needs to do a better job of screening its employees and instituting procedures to ensure its employees are obeying the law. ACORN has a lot of housecleaning to do, and hopefully will become a more effective organization in the process.

But O'Keefe did not make this video out of a desire to improve provision of services to low-income communities. Glenn Beck didn't devote an entire FOX show to the piece out of concern for Latin American victims of sex trafficking.

Beck pushed this video to derail discussion of the health care bill and take down a longtime political opponent of the GOP: ACORN, a national organization that works to register low-income voters of the kind O'Keefe wants to see excluded from the polls, an organization that helps low-income homeowners avoid ending up on the street.

I watched O'Keefe's video at the Baltimore ACORN office and Beck's show promoting the clip. On my reading, James O'Keefe and Glenn Beck have not demonstrated that they care about improving the situation of low-income communities or that they want to improve the situation of actual undocumented Salvadoran children in this country, or mitigate the suffering of real victims of trafficking.

If I am wrong, where is the evidence? Where is O'Keefe's story on unaccompanied minors in the U.S. who are smuggled by coyotes to rejoin their parents or trafficked into prostitution, then arrested and targeted by DHS? Where is Beck's expose on the failure of the U.S. government to prevent human trafficking or protect trafficking victims? Has O'Keefe ever met any undocumented Salvadoran children? Does he know what their concerns are? Does he know anything about their struggles in El Salvador or in the U.S.? I've seen no indication that he does.

Instead, I've seen him and his accomplice use underage Central American prostitutes--who do exist in this country--to execute a dirty takedown of a political opponent.

The work of O'Keefe, Giles, and Beck serves not the interests of low-income communities in the U.S., but rather the political interests of the GOP and GOP-approved media. Those political interests include further marginalizing black and latin@ communities because they vote heavily against Republicans.

I know Glenn Beck isn't concerned about the Salvadoran girls he knew never existed in O'Keefe's fantasy scenario but do exist in real life by the way he described them repeatedly as "illegal immigrants" and "illegal aliens" in his broadcast (for instance, here at 8:05). That is a tried and true way to dehumanize actual people before locking them up and sending them back to meet their fate. It applies to day laborers waiting at the Home Depot and it applies to 13-year-old Salvadoran trafficking victims.

Beck's attitude towards child trafficking victims is of a piece with his attitude on immigration more generally. He views undocumented immigrants as a deep threat to American society, one that can be sanitized by deporting the "problem" back to the home country, leaving America pure again. But traffickers rely on people like Beck to demonize the victims, keeping the whole operation in the shadows and away from the eyes of law enforcement, keeping the victims here in the U.S. Traffickers prey on communities that exist outside the law, on people who have no legal standing because nativists like Beck have perverted the principle of "rule of law" to exclude from the law's reach entire groups of people.

Perhaps to immunize itself from further attacks from Beck, the New York Times decided to write a puff piece on James O'Keefe without once mentioning Glenn Beck, Andrew Breitbart, or the FOX attack machine that went into action on Beck's cue, leading a solid majority of Congressional Democrats to vote to yank ACORN's federal funding. Beck is right when he says this is not journalism--I can't say exactly what it is except for sloppy.

O'Keefe, for all his ignorance of the issues, is correct when he implies in the video that the federal government is ineffective at preventing sex trafficking. Trafficking regularly occurs under the nose of the government. Even when ICE goes in to break up a local trafficking operation and puts trafficked women into removal proceedings, the government often bumbles through the process in a way that does little to prevent future trafficking, to bring traffickers to justice, or to protect the victims from retaliation.

The T "trafficking" Visa is made available by the U.S. government to qualifying victims of trafficking. But the T Visa is of little use when the bureaucratic hoops a T Visa applicant must jump through screen out the great majority of applicants. An estimated 14,000 people are trafficked into the U.S. each year. Congress has set a cap on the number of T Visas available each year at 5,000. But between 2004 and 2007, DHS only granted 709 T Visas. The U.S. government trumpeted its success in certifying 317 individuals in 2008 for eventual receipt of T Visas. 317/14,000 = 2.26%. That's great for the 317 who were helped; not so much for the estimated 98% of trafficking victims left out in the cold.

The T Visa doesn't do much good when traffickers--often the transnational crime syndicates--hold all the cards and national governments are left scratching their heads. For instance, let's say a Guatemalan woman is trafficked to the U.S. by Mexican members of a transnational Salvadoran mara (gang). She has family members at home, children or parents who she needs to support and who provide a good motivator for her to do what the mara says. Whether she was forced or tricked into sex work or "chose" to do it to keep her kids fed is irrelevant for this inquiry. Maybe she works for a year or two in the U.S., then she and other women in her local ring are caught and put into "protective custody" by ICE. To locate and prosecute the traffickers, ICE needs the cooperation of the trafficking victims. In order to get a T Visa, the trafficking victim must cooperate with ICE (pdf) or whichever law enforcement agency is investigating or prosecuting the case. The T Visa applicant must also demonstrate that she would "suffer extreme hardship involving unusual and severe harm upon removal." This is a high standard and, along with the requirement of cooperation with law enforcement, represents one reason so few T Visas are granted each year.

It is very easy for the maras to subvert the process the U.S. government has established to prevent trafficking. This assumes the trafficking victim even attempts to negotiate the bureaucratic tangle to apply for a T Visa, something she would certainly need the assistance of a community-based organization or pro bono attorney to do, which represents another obstacle (one of many) to completing the process.

The mara knows all it has to say is this:

If you talk to ICE about anything you have seen or experienced in the U.S., we will find your children in Guatemala, and they will suffer. If you talk to the Mexican government about your Mexican handlers, your children will suffer. If you ask the Guatemalan government to protect your children, we will ask our people in the Guatemalan government to humiliate your family to teach you a lesson, and then we will make your children suffer. If you ask the Salvadoran government to stop us from doing this, we will laugh and then we will kill your children.

The mara knows it probably doesn't have to say even that much, it is all very well understood. So naturally, the easiest course of action for all parties involved is for the woman to return home at DHS's expense so she can be put back into the system and circulated back into sex slavery at another entry point. This represents another successful deportation for ICE--another "illegal" removed so Glenn Beck can sleep safe at night. DHS does not view granting a T Visa as a "win," the institutional incentives all favor an executed removal order over a visa for a prostitute. Maybe the mara will send our hypothetical trafficking victim to Belgium next time. Then the Belgian government can fail to protect her and her family while its men use her body at a low low international rate--they can take a page from the U.S. which does this so well.

Meanwhile the U.S. State Department is still stuck in the 20th Century, dividing up its analysis of trafficking by country rather than by factors that cut across borders, like the maras or the transnational trade and capital flows that displace people or lead them elsewhere in search of a better life.

The U.S. government has never really understood, much less accepted responsibility for, its role in creating the maras in the first place. How can the U.S. combat something it barely comprehends?

Back to ACORN and O'Keefe. If James O'Keefe's point in filming ACORN employees unawares was to highlight the plight of trafficking victims in the U.S. and the grossly inadequate efforts of the federal government to stop sex trafficking, I applaud him for his courage. I will be waiting to see how he and Glenn Beck follow up on this important issue (please leave a note in comments if you hear of any attempt to do so).

I'm afraid, though, that neither O'Keefe nor Beck understand how trafficking in the U.S. works or have devoted much thought to victims of trafficking. Instead, O'Keefe's video and its promotion represented a cheap but effective tactic designed to (1) gain ratings in the face of a boycott, (2) inflict damage on longtime political opponents, and (3) derail health care reform. That is pretty shady if you ask me, and leads me to wonder whether O'Keefe is still inhabiting the fantasy scenario he created when he calls himself a "radical progressive." Mr. O'Keefe, I don't think those words mean what you think they mean.

[Read more about modern slavery in the U.S. here and here.]

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Did Glenn Beck ever complain about "czars" when other presidents were in office? Did Glenn Beck ever promote and/or organize any anti-government protests when any other president was in office?

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This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on September 22, 2009 12:31 AM.

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