Failed by the Government: Guatemalan Minors Placed into Custody of Traffickers

In December 2014, authorities found ten Guatemalan migrants, eight of whom were minors, living in dilapidated, unsanitary trailers in Marion, Ohio.1 The children had been smuggled into the United States, some of them lured by the promise of education.2 However, after entering into US custody, the victims soon found themselves living in squalor and working in forced-labor conditions at Trillium Farms, one of the United States’ largest egg producers.2

The victims were forced to live in substandard trailers, “in order to keep the victims under the Defendants’ control, to isolate them from others, and to force them to pay more money… in the form of rent, in addition to their smuggling debts,” which, for some of the victims, were secured by the retention of deeds to their parents’ properties in Guatemala.2 Threatened with violence, including harm to their families, the victims were forced to perform physically-demanding labor for twelve hours per day, six or seven days a week.2 They were made to surrender their paychecks, receiving only small amounts of money for food and other needs.2 According to the federal criminal indictment, “the Defendants used a combination of threats, humiliation, deprivation, financial coercion, debt manipulation, and monitoring to establish a pattern of domination and control over the victims, to create a climate of a fear and helplessness that would compel their compliance with the conspirators’ orders, and to isolate them from anyone who might intervene to protect them from the conspirators and expose the conspirators’ unlawful acts.”2

Failure of the Federal Government to Protect the Victims

The Los Angeles Times reported on the Marion trafficking case, saying “The basics of the Trillium Farms case are shocking enough… But also shocking is how the youths ended up there: The federal government had placed the teens with the traffickers, who had posed as relatives and family friends to take responsibility for the boys.”

Concerned that the Marion trafficking case was not a one-off incident, US Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Chairman of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI, part of the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs), launched a bipartisan investigation into the federal government’s policies and procedures for placing unaccompanied migrant children with adult sponsors.3 Portman said, “Based on what I have learned to date, I am concerned that the child placement process failures that contributed to the [egg farm] trafficking case are part of a systemic problem rather than a one-off incident”1

Details of the the investigation corroborating Portman’s suspicion were revealed in a report published by the PSI. According to the report, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is required by federal law to ensure that “unaccompanied alien children” (UACs) are protected from human trafficking and other forms of abuse as they transition to the care of their adult sponsors and await their immigration hearings.4

In his opening remarks to the Hearing on HHS Placement of Migrant Children, Portman exposed the failure of HHS to perform its protective duty, saying, “When [the Marion children] arrived here, they were entrusted to the US Department of Health and Human Services, like thousands of other unaccompanied children who had been detained at the border. Under federal law, it’s then HHS’s job to find and vet a relative or trusted family friend to care for the child until their immigration court date, or else house them in safe shelters. Instead, HHS delivered the Marion children into the hands of a human trafficking ring that forced them into these slave-labor conditions.

Due to serious deficiencies revealed by the investigation, the PSI concluded that “HHS’s policies and procedures are inadequate to protect children in the agency’s care.”4 Among the myriad deficiencies identified, the report cited:

  • HHS’s unreliable process for verifying the alleged relationship between a UAC and a “Category 3” sponsor (one who has no close relation to the child)
  • HHS’s inability to detect when a sponsor (or group of related sponsors) is seeking custody of multiple, unrelated children
  • HHS’s failure to conduct adequate background checks, and
  • HSS’s failure to adequately conduct home studies.4

The PSI found that “These deficiencies in HHS’s policies expose UACs to an unacceptable risk of trafficking and other forms of abuse at the hands of their government-approved sponsors.”4

In addition to the case of the Marion children, the Subcommittee reviewed 13 other UAC cases involving post-placement trafficking and 15 cases with “serious trafficking indicators.”4 However, the PSI was unable to determine how many UACs placed by HHS had been victims of trafficking, partly because HHS lacked a regular process for tracking such cases.4

Portman summarized the inadequacy of the federal government’s protective procedures, stating, “Our conclusion is that the Department of Health and Human Services process for placing unaccompanied children suffers from serious systemic failures. The horrible trafficking crime that occurred in Marion, Ohio could likely have been prevented if HHS had adopted common sense measures for screening sponsors and checking in on the wellbeing of at-risk children.”5

How Immigration Policy Facilitates Smuggling

The Marion children’s case and the resulting discovery of HHS’s failure to protect them represent just one example of how government immigration policies can facilitate human trafficking.

The Marion children were part of a surge in immigration of unaccompanied children into the United States, which increased from more than 24,000 in fiscal year 2012 to almost 39,000 in FY2013 and to nearly 69,000 in FY2014.6 While the causes of this migratory surge are disputed, changes in US immigration policy (specifically the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)) were likely contributing factors.7

One possible explanation for increases in migration is the “word of mouth effect,” in which people hear about actual or allegedly successful ways to cross the border and plan their journeys accordingly.7  In this way, TVPRA and/or DACA may have contributed to the 2012-2014 surge in immigration of unaccompanied children, as these policies came to be perceived as favorable changes with respect to migrants’ ability to remain in the United States.7

The “word of mouth effect” is magnified by criminal smuggling organizations’ exploitation of real and perceived improvements in migrants’ chances for successful migration.7 Human smugglers likely take part in the communication of migrant-favorable changes in immigration policy, driving a surge in the number of individuals who then attempt to cross the border.7 Scott Rempell argues, “It is in smugglers’ interest to spread word because heightened interest in migrating contributes to the industry’s multi-billion dollar enterprise… Smuggling organizations often take advantage of perceived weaknesses in the entry process and help migrants exploit them… right now, UAC laws could be perceived as potential weaknesses.”7

According to a 2014 interview by the Washington Examiner with “Juan,” a Guatemalan “coyote,” or migrant smuggler, coyotes pay close attention to US immigration laws. He describes DACA as a new “business model.”8 Juan explains, “Obama has helped us with the children because they’re able to stay in the United States. That’s the reason why so many children are coming.”8

While the perception of migrant-favorable changes in immigration policy can increase business for coyotes, stricter border enforcement can achieve the same effect. Migrants are presumably more likely to employ the assistance of smugglers if they believe that immigration controls will increase the difficulty or riskiness of the journey.9

How Smuggling Becomes Trafficking

Migrant smuggling is distinct from human trafficking in that smuggled migrants voluntarily pay or agree to pay their smugglers for assistance in crossing the border, whereas victims of human trafficking are characterized by a lack of agency resulting from fraud or coercion. However, smuggling can and often does turn into trafficking, as was the case with the Marion children.

Jennifer Chacón explains that efforts to increase immigration control and border-enforcement “might actually facilitate trafficking,” in part because crossing the border becomes more difficult and therefore more costly.9 Chacón explains, “Smuggled migrants are now more likely to owe money to their smugglers and more likely to try to pay off this debt with labor after entry. This increases the chances that smuggling relationships will transform into trafficking relationships.”9 Juan, the coyote, validates Chacón’s argument, explaining, “They can make it more difficult for us. And what we’ll do is, we’ll raise the price. That’s how all our business works.”8

The Marion trafficking case exemplifies the potential for smuggling to result in exploitation, as the children were bound to their traffickers by their smuggling debts. In one victim’s case, “[Defendant] told Victim 7, for the first time, that his smuggling debt was actually greater than $15,000 and that Victim 7 would have to continue to work and pay… or else Victim 7’s mother would lose her land.”2

Reinforcement of Anti-Immigration Sentiment

Exacerbating the vulnerability of migrants bound by their smuggling debts is the government’s criminalization of these same individuals. Chacón argues, “U.S. immigration law and policy unintentionally helps traffickers assert control over victims once those victims are in the United States. Unauthorized peoples are more vulnerable to threats because they know that efforts to seek legal recourse can result in protracted immigration detention, criminal prosecution, and, of course, removal.”9

Due to the tension that exists between the protection of trafficking victims and the enforcement of immigration laws, a gray area arises between trafficking victims lacking agency and voluntary migrants who have participated in smuggling schemes.9 Migrants who have crossed the border with smugglers and who find themselves in exploitative situations fall into this grey area, where they are more likely to be identified as “illegal immigrants” than “trafficking victims” and are therefore afraid to seek help.9 “Dina Francesca Haynes explains, “Law enforcement officials not only fail to see a victim if she also shows signs of having had a motivation to migrate; they also still perceive these exploited persons as criminals.” 10

Despite the shortcomings of the US legal system to protect unaccompanied children and other vulnerable migrants from exploitation, the media continues to reinforce the idea that the problem of trafficking originates outside of the United States and is imported into the country via the immigration of criminals. As Chacón explains, “Discussions regarding trafficking— including media coverage of trafficking, law enforcement anti-trafficking-training efforts, and official statements on trafficking—have played into and compounded the myth of migrant criminality.”9

Illustrating Chacón’s argument is an article entitled, “Missed opportunities: Ohio trafficking escaped scrutiny,” which begins, “Three years before federal authorities arrested Aroldo Rigoberto Castillo-Serrano for forcing Guatemalan teenagers into grueling labor at central Ohio egg farms, he was convicted of drunken driving — a charge that could have led to his deportation.” Although the article later exposes various failings of the system to protect the victims of the Marion trafficking case, the opening of the article has already created the notion that the entire scheme could have been avoided simply by deporting Castillo-Serrano for drunk-driving. In reality, the complex system that buttresses the embedded networks of exploitation and trafficking would not have blinked an eye at the deportation of one human trafficker. As long as the demand exists, someone, (white or brown, male or female, American or non-American) will emerge to fulfill the supply.

Chacón further clarifies the fallacy of pinning the problem on migrant criminality, explaining that trafficking discussions tend to focus on particular “bad actors,” who are almost always noncitizen men or men of color, rather than exploring how immigration policy can facilitate exploitation. Chacón argues, “While it is certainly desirable to punish traffickers, ignoring the complicity of the vast array of people who generate the markets that traffickers service results in a misleading view of the trafficking problem.”9

Another article covering the Marion trafficking case exemplifies Chacón’s argument by emphasizing the non-American origin of one of the defendants, stating, “Castillo-Serrano, a Guatemalan national and a human-trafficking leader in his native country, and Salgado Soto were originally indicted and arrested in January.” While foreign-national, Castillo-Serrano, was indicted in the trafficking case, American egg-producer, Trillium Farms, escaped the blame. Trillium Farms, despite having been the ultimate consumer and beneficiary of the forced labor, was shielded from liability because it had contracted with third parties to obtain the labor. (See note.)


The Marion trafficking case and the structural factors surrounding it illustrate that human trafficking is embedded within a cyclical system. Trafficking is facilitated at each turn, from the governmental policies that bolster criminal smuggling networks, to the failure of government agencies to protect vulnerable migrants, and finally to the reinforcement of the migrant criminality trope, which legitimizes stricter immigration controls and policies and, through intimidation, impedes exploited migrants from seeking help.





Note: Contract labor, rather than direct employment, is common in the global production system, which prefers flexible labor in order to accommodate economic booms and busts.11 David Bacon states, “Displaced migrant workers are the backbone of this system. Its guiding principle is that immigration policy and enforcement should direct immigrants to industries when their labor is needed and remove them when it’s not.”11

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