Trafficking in Persons: How America Exploited the Narrative of Exploitation

51 Pages Posted: 29 Apr 2019

See all articles by Anette Sikka

Anette Sikka

Legal Studies Department, University of Illinois at Springfield

Date Written: April 16, 2019


There is still deep disagreement over the meaning of the term trafficking in persons, despite having had legal definitions for it for nearly 20 years. These disagreements continue to persist despite extensive scholarly attention and numerous calls to come to consensus for purposes of research and distribution of funding. This article offers two reasons for this endurance: First, trafficking is not an act in itself but a concept created to address social ills. It is not static, and the creative process continues to reshape what it means. Second, groups have been able to capitalize on the linguistic ambiguity to achieve certain political goals. This has provided incentive for them to keep using the language in contradictory ways. This article examines those incentives and the ways in which law has contributed to their creation. It reviews the history of the creation of anti-trafficking narratives and how they’ve been used to obscure potentially less palatable criminal and anti-immigration agendas. Given the expansiveness of U.S. global influence, the appearance of the categories “trafficked” and “not-trafficked” in its domestic and foreign policy has impacted not only legal landscapes but the ways in which groups of people are actually perceived and behave. U.S. laws and the narratives they reflect have resulted in activities that have harmed rather than benefited the marginalized groups often promoted as beneficiaries of anti-trafficking work. The purpose of the article is to clearly illustrate these processes in order to be able to identify and anticipate their effects in future initiatives. In that context it also draws attention to the construction of a new emerging trafficking narrative around the U.S.-Mexico border and its use as justification for punitive criminal law and the building of a wall to reduce migration.

Keywords: trafficking, migration, ethnicity, critical discourse, critical race theory

Suggested Citation

Sikka, Anette, Trafficking in Persons: How America Exploited the Narrative of Exploitation (April 16, 2019). Forthcoming, Texas International Law Journal, Vol. 55, Available at SSRN:

Anette Sikka (Contact Author)

Legal Studies Department, University of Illinois at Springfield ( email )

Springfield, IL 62703
United States

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