Human trafficking in the United States and its relationship to poverty

In recent decades the issue of human trafficking into the United States has been an issue of contention in political debates. The southern border with Mexico is the primary channel through which illegal immigrants (most of them of Hispanic origin from Central American countries) attempt to sneak into the confines of the world’s most prosperous nation. In spite of this trend of human trafficking across borders going on for more than two decades, the government has done nothing substantial to curb it. Probably this is in recognition of the fact that without cheap labor provided by millions of such immigrants, it is difficult to sustain an economy as big as that of the United States. While these impoverished people from South and Central America get into the United States in order to improve their economic wellbeing, evidence suggests that they barely get past acute poverty and only manage to survive. Despite being the richest nation on earth, a significant portion of its inhabitants live below the poverty line. A large portion of them are recently arrived illegal immigrants, who find disillusionment and further misery on their arrival into the country through illegal channels (Lybecker, 2008). This essay will argue that while human trafficking is not solely responsible for poverty in the United States, it does contribute to the growing pool of poor people and is a manifestation of the dark side of the global capitalist economy.

Firstly, poverty and homelessness in the United States can be traced back a long way. Even long before political discourse about illegal immigration started, there has been constant influx of impoverished and oppressed people into the country. As and when immigrants (legal or illegal) arrive into the confines of the country, they start out as homeless people by default. The direct and circumstantial evidence for this is available in literary and performing arts of the last one and half centuries. Prominent among the artists who dealt with this subject are Walt Whitman, Jack London, Charlie Chaplin, Woody Guthrie, John Dos Passos, Bill Mauldin, Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck. In the early twentieth century slang, homeless, vagabond immigrants were casually referred to as ‘hoboes’, which is a term of denigration. These so-called hoboes had a reputation for being barbaric, wild, lazy and unscrupulous. The first detailed representation of these people living on the fringes of society started appearing after the end of the Civil War. We further learn that

“following the Civil War, a legion of men travelled the country with no visible means of support. Some earned the sobriquet “hobo,” which they embraced it as a nickname for a migrant laborer, that is, a “hoe boy.” Whatever the origin, sociologists of the 1920s used the phrase “hobohemia” to describe a subaltern lifestyle embraced by white working-class males. When congregating in places such as Chicago’s “main stem,” they forged a swaggering counterculture that defied domesticity. They embraced the labor radicalism of the Wobblies, even while they were parodied by vaudeville and motion picture comics.” (Lookingbill, 2005, p.314)

During these early days, homelessness and poverty in the United States was largely an issue of social class and was caused by the huge disparities in wealth distribution between the top ten percent of the population and the rest. But in the last century, the issue has grown to encompass factors of racial discrimination, drug abuse and homosexuality. A case in point is the systemic discrimination meted out to the African American population, who are the first group to be trafficked as slaves into the United States from Africa. Despite comprising only 13 percent of the total U.S. Population, blacks outnumber whites among the poor. This disproportion is a result of historical injustices committed against the African American community, who are subject to discrimination of various forms even today (Jokisch, 2006).

Through African Americans were the first group that was trafficked into the United States, in recent years the illegal immigrants from Latin America has been the primary contributor for this phenomenon. The influx of Latino immigrants (most of them trafficked through illegal channels) during the course of the twentieth century was predominantly from regions such as Mexico and other Central American countries. Of course, the last two decades have seen unprecedented number of Latino immigrants being trafficked to states such as California from all parts of Central America. A good indicator of the second class status given to Latinos is reflected in the fact that they have retained their native cultures and language even after living many years in the United States. The distinct Hispanic culture and the associated Spanish language are signs of this community’s social exclusion from the American melting pot. For example, a majority of Latinos in the state of California still cannot speak proper English. This also has the added disadvantages of making them ineligible for white collar jobs and upward social mobility. In this regard, the fortunes of the community have not changed much over the course of the last century. They remain oppressed and poor now as they were during the turbulent forties and fifties (Lybecker, 2008).

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