FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Old Anti-Trafficking Propaganda

by NANDITA SHARMA

Over the last two decades, many national governments and a variety of non-governmental organizations have sounded a loud drumbeat against “human trafficking”—the transporting and harboring of people through coercive means in order to exploit their labor. But as a recent article on the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency website demonstrates, anti-trafficking rhetoric has deep roots—ones inimical to the wellbeing of migrants.

Entitled, “Did You Know… Customs and Immigration Officers Helped ‘Kidnap’ Chinese Girls to Save Them,” the article recycles old stereotypes of gullible Chinese women and villainous Chinese men, and is peopled with chivalrous and swashbuckling white border guards (the precursors of today’s immigration police).

With a view towards justifying its present-day practices of exclusion, the CBP presents an utterly antiseptic view of racist and sexist immigration restrictions against migrants from China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Long and intense interrogations (often lasting months and, in some cases, years) by immigration officials are presented as uncovering the lies hatched by “evil Chinese traffickers.” Kidnapping and incarcerating women and girls from China is portrayed as protecting them from their Chinese “captors,” and deportation is seen as the ultimate form of protection bestowed upon them, courtesy of a caring U.S. government.

This story is reality utterly turned on its head. Migrants, by definition, want to move. Yet, the CBP tells us that the very things that migrants fear most –detection, detention and deportation—are precisely what migrants need and want. It does so by presenting “traffickers” as the greatest problem they face. This is nation-state-speak. Falling for it is a trap that women’s and migrants’ rights advocates must avoid.

Whether a century or more ago or in the present, the effect of Washington’s anti-trafficking propaganda is to absolve the U.S. apparatus of exclusion of any responsibility for the suffering and exploitation of migrants. It also helps to render invisible the fact that in the face of U.S. immigration laws intended to restrict their mobility, people needing and wanting to move will try their best to circumvent them.

Denying such inconvenient truths helps erase the fact that U.S. restrictions—along with massive displacements within China (some caused by imperialist actions of the United States itself)—more or less guaranteed a trade in falsified immigration or residency papers in the case of Chinese exclusion in the late 1800s-early 1900s. Such denial also facilitates the portrayal of U.S. authorities as the rescuer of Chinese women and girls.

Furthering this project is the negation of the well-documented fact that some women did seek work in the sex industry as part of their efforts to gain a livelihood and support their communities. Infantilizing women from China—by denying their agency—and vilifying those who helped them enter the United States is central to legitimizing racist and sexist immigration restrictions.

In one particularly stunning and emblematic passage of the CBP article, anti-trafficking rhetoric works to legitimate actions against migrants in the name of protecting them. “Several officers in San Francisco found ways around the legal restrictions,” it reads, “sometimes acting without official sanction. When they suspected a girl was doomed to a life of prostitution, they tipped off local church-sponsored rescue missions that she needed their help. Agents like John Robinson actively participated in raids on brothels to rescue the women. Collector John P. Jackson not only accompanied rescue operations, but also testified against traffickers in court.”

Stories like this, far from illustrating a “rescue” instead serve to prop up the state by legitimizing its measures against people migrating from China. In order to avoid accountability for creating the very conditions that made clandestine migration strategies necessary in the first place, the federal government invented the category of the “evil Chinese trafficker” to mystify the process.

In doing so, extrajudicial actions on the part of U.S. officials were glorified. So, too, were the state’s efforts to deny those women who wished to work in the sex industry the ability to do so and to incarcerate any female migrant from China, often with the goal of deporting them—the main consequence of such “rescue missions.”

In this CBP story, the Immigration Act of 1875 (Page Act) is mentioned but without any discussion of its racist and sexist intentions or effects. Slyly using the rhetoric of anti-slavery and, once again, done in the name of “protecting” migrants, the Page Act prohibited the immigration of workers arriving on “coolie” labor contracts from “China, Japan, or any Oriental country.”

Rather than recognize that workers employed as indentured laborers are generally “cheaper” than those who are not, the Page Act was premised on the notion that it was a person’s “Chinese-ness” that made them “cheap.” Thus, instead of Washington banning unfree employment relations outright, it banned “Asian” workers. By institutionalizing racism, the actual processes that cheapened the labor of migrants from China, such as their exclusion from labor, civil and other rights, were obscured and depoliticized.

The Page Act also specifically restricted the immigration of women from China. It did so by creating a new category of female migrant—the “Chinese prostitute” –who was barred from entering the United States.

As scholar Eithne Luibheid has shown, the Page Act allowed state officials to make highly discretionary judgments about Chinese women’s “proper” or “improper” conduct, judgments very much influenced by the country’s broader racist and sexist culture. By differentiating among women on how they used (or allegedly used) their sexual labor, the Page Act reproduced the heteropatriarchal wife/prostitute dichotomy within US immigration (and other) law.

Legitimized through the rhetoric of protecting Chinese women from prostitution, the Page Act actually worked to prevent their independent migration and that by women seeking to marry Chinese men already in the United States. The effect of the Page Act–and the actions of those enforcing it–was, therefore, the reduction in opportunities for all women from China to immigrate to the United States.

This was a particularly important public policy goal, because all children born in the United States would automatically become citizens under the 14th Amendment (of 1868). Hence, in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery in the United States, the Page Act was a crucial part of the state’s efforts to reconstruct a society in which citizenship remained restricted to those racialized as ”white.”

The portrayal of both women and men from China as deviating from sexual norms was absolutely central to the fabricated correlation between whiteness and civilization. Indeed, the dual images of the Chinese female “sex slave” (to use today’s anti-trafficking rhetoric) and the sexually depraved Chinese male were key to the construction of people from China as a “yellow peril.” As the writer Luc Sante has illustrated, in the quarter century before the 1875 Page Act, one of the most popular – and grossly overstated – complaints against Chinese residents in the press and in state-speak was their alleged involvement in prostitution, either as slaves or as enslavers.

Even the other major negative stereotype of people from China–that they were opium addicted zombies–was a way to talk about the supposedly different sexual norms of “the Chinese” and “the whites” and the “dangers” of the former to the latter. The historian Diane Ahmad reports that white doctors even claimed that opium smoking led to increased involvement in prostitution by young white women and to genetic contamination via miscegenation, or racial mixing.

Such racialized differentiations were a crucial part of how restrictions against Chinese migrants—male and, especially, female—were legitimated. These ideas were firmly embedded, and institutionalized into US law, by the Page Act.

It also paved the way for the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first federal immigration law to prohibit immigration on the basis of ideas of “racial” inferiority. The bill barred all working class persons from China, regardless of whether or not they came on unfree labor contracts and whether or not they worked, or intended to work, in the sex industry. Renewed in 1892, it was extended indefinitely in 1902, and not repealed until 1943.

Along with the 1888 Scott Act—which established that Chinese migrants, even when they had entered and had been living in the country legally, could not re-enter after leaving U.S. territory—these laws intensified the need for people to seek unofficial means of entering the United States. Indeed, one of the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act, points out sociologist Sheldon Zhang–along with the National Origins Act of 1924 that severely limited the number of elite migrants who could migrate from China—was the commercialization of clandestine migration.

These immigration restrictions, and the officers who enforced them, did not operate in isolation from other U.S. laws. In the late 19th and until the mid-20th century, migrants from China were prohibited from becoming U.S. citizens. In 1889, an Anti-Miscegenation Act prohibited men racialized as “Chinese” from marrying “white” women. And a 1927 US Supreme Court decision (Lum v. Rice) legalized the segregation of “yellow” children in educational institutions.

Alongside the racism and sexism of US law, were the everyday acts of violence, discrimination and denigration targeting persons racialized as “Chinese.” Within this context, the “rescuing” rhetoric of US immigration (or customs) officials rings decidedly hollow.

Ultimately, this story of past “rescue missions” is told in order to brag about current US efforts at “ending trafficking.” “To this day, CBP continues to combat human trafficking,” the article boasts. It then proceeds to give examples of particular initiatives as part of that effort to convince us that the state, through its anti-trafficking laws, is going to protect migrants by controlling–and limiting–their migration and by detaining and, usually, deporting them “back home.”

It is not a coincidence that in a world where more people than ever before need to–and want to—migrate and where the immigration laws of “rich world” countries, like the United States, have become ever-more restrictive, that the U.S. state has since 2000 once again trotted out “anti-trafficking” laws and the overblown rhetoric of “rescuing victims of trafficking” to legitimate draconian measures against migrants.

In behaving this way, the United States–indeed the entire global system of national states– tries to escape accountability for creating unsafe conditions for people attempting to migrate away from a number of politically, economically and/or socially violent or otherwise untenable situations. They also evade responsibility for constructing a system that is nothing short of a global apartheid: one where immigration and citizenship in the “rich world” remains elusive for all but a few and is especially restrictive for women.

Getting authorized resident status in the United States today, for example, is almost next to impossible for most of the world’s migrants. Since the reasons that people move is not mitigated by such restrictions, the largest category of migration to the United States has become that of “illegal.” Indeed, it is larger than all of the categories of “legal” migration combined.

Although obviously racist and sexist language is not (officially) used today, the rhetoric of “trafficking” still relies on many of the same assumptions. While “traffickers” are no longer represented as “evil Chinamen,” they are said to be part of “foreign criminal syndicates,” even though there is scant evidence to show this. In fact, as in the late-1800s and early-1900s, most clandestine migration operations are small-scale and migrants most often receive help from a network of family members or other associates to move.

The “victims of trafficking,” however, remain caught in the same language of the late-1800s and early-1900s. Once again, they are the “poor and uneducated” women from what is now referred to as the “global South.”

Kathleen Barry, one of the founders of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, for instance, argues that while any woman could potentially become a “sex slave,” the most vulnerable occupy what she believes is a lower stage of economic and feminist development. Relying on and reproducing earlier imperialist rhetoric which linked the status of women to a global hierarchy of “race” and “civilization,” Barry states that such a lower stage “prevails in pre-industrial and feudal societies that are primarily agricultural and where women are excluded from the public sphere.” They are places where “Third World women” are the “exclusive property of men.”

As in the past, today’s anti-trafficking practices are done in the name of “saving women” from “their men.” Once, again the state evades all responsibility. And, as in the past, what we get is the detection, detention and deportation of women and girl migrants.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, instead of objectifying women and girl migrants through the state category of “victims of trafficking,” we need to expose the role of the state in creating dangerous migration routes and discriminatory legal and social environments for them.

Ultimately, what migrants want to do is move and to move safely. Like “citizens,” they want full access to the means of life. Listening to migrants means working to eliminate all immigration and border controls and all distinctions between “citizens” and “migrants.” Only in this context can we counter preposterous claims by states that migration and citizenship controls are what are best for migrants.

Nandita Sharma is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She is the author of Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of ‘Migrant Workers’ in Canada.

This article also appears on NACLA.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

August 24, 2016
John Pilger
Provoking Nuclear War by Media
Jonathan Cook
The Birth of Agro-Resistance in Palestine
Eric Draitser
Ajamu Baraka, “Uncle Tom,” and the Pathology of White Liberal Racism
Jack Rasmus
Greek Debt and the New Financial Imperialism
Robert Fisk
The Sultan’s Hit List Grows, as Turkey Prepares to Enter Syria
Abubakar N. Kasim
What Did the Olympics Really Do for Humanity?
Renee Parsons
Obamacare Supporters Oppose ColoradoCare
Alycee Lane
The Trump Campaign: a White Revolt Against ‘Neoliberal Multiculturalism’
Edward Hunt
Maintaining U.S. Dominance in the Pacific
George Wuerthner
The Big Fish Kill on the Yellowstone
Jesse Jackson
Democrats Shouldn’t Get a Blank Check From Black Voters
Kent Paterson
Saving Southern New Mexico from the Next Big Flood
Arnold August
RIP Jean-Guy Allard: A Model for Progressive Journalists Working in the Capitalist System
August 23, 2016
Diana Johnstone
Hillary and the Glass Ceilings Illusion
Bill Quigley
Race and Class Gap Widening: Katrina Pain Index 2016 by the Numbers
Ted Rall
Trump vs. Clinton: It’s All About the Debates
Eoin Higgins
Will Progressive Democrats Ever Support a Third Party Candidate?
Kenneth J. Saltman
Wall Street’s Latest Public Sector Rip-Off: Five Myths About Pay for Success
Binoy Kampmark
Labouring Hours: Sweden’s Six-Hour Working Day
John Feffer
The Globalization of Trump
Gwendolyn Mink – Felicia Kornbluh
Time to End “Welfare as We Know It”
Medea Benjamin
Congress Must Take Action to Block Weapon Sales to Saudi Arabia
Halyna Mokrushyna
Political Writer, Daughter of Ukrainian Dissident, Detained and Charged in Ukraine
Manuel E. Yepe
Tourism and Religion Go Hand-in-Hand in the Caribbean
ED ADELMAN
Belted by Trump
Thomas Knapp
War: The Islamic State and Western Politicians Against the Rest of Us
Nauman Sadiq
Shifting Alliances: Turkey, Russia and the Kurds
Rivera Sun
Active Peace: Restoring Relationships While Making Change
August 22, 2016
Eric Draitser
Hillary Clinton: The Anti-Woman ‘Feminist’
Robert Hunziker
Arctic Death Rattle
Norman Solomon
Clinton’s Transition Team: a Corporate Presidency Foretold
Ralph Nader
Hillary’s Hubris: Only Tell the Rich for $5000 a Minute!
Russell Mokhiber
Save the Patients, Cut Off the Dick!
Steven M. Druker
The Deceptions of the GE Food Venture
Elliot Sperber
Clean, Green, Class War: Bill McKibben’s Shortsighted ‘War on Climate Change’
Binoy Kampmark
Claims of Exoneration: The Case of Slobodan Milošević
Walter Brasch
The Contradictions of Donald Trump
Michael Donnelly
Body Shaming Trump: Statue of Limitations
Weekend Edition
August 19, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Carl Boggs
Hillary and the War Party
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Prime Time Green
Andrew Levine
Hillary Goes With the Flow
Dave Lindorff
New York Times Shames Itself by Attacking Wikileaks’ Assange
Gary Leupp
Could a Russian-Led Coalition Defeat Hillary’s War Plans?
Conn Hallinan
Dangerous Seas: China and the USA
Joshua Frank
Richard Holbrooke and the Obama Doctrine
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail