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Hilton's New Human Trafficking Policy May Hurt Victims More Than Help

By sharing ICE's tip line with guests, the international hotel chain exposes trafficking victims and others to greater possible harm.
The Hilton Cherry Hill in New Jersey.

The Hilton Cherry Hill in New Jersey.

At the check-in counters and guest rooms of Hilton properties across the United States, visitors may notice business cards which read, "HUMAN TRAFFICKING IS HAPPENING NOW." The cards exhort guests to report "suspected human trafficking" to a hotline belonging to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Hilton describes these cards as part of its strategy for addressing human trafficking, but in encouraging its guests to report each other to ICE, the international hotel chain is exposing trafficking victims and others to greater possible harm, including detention and deportation.

The human trafficking cards distributed by Hilton direct readers to a phone number described as a Department of Homeland Security number, which connects to ICE's "Homeland Security Investigations Tip Line." The hotline takes reports on "suspicious criminal activity," which includes terrorism, drug smuggling, money laundering, and other crimes, in addition to human trafficking.

In a 2018 report, Polaris, a leading anti-trafficking non-profit organization, revealed that, since launching its National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2007, it had recorded 3,596 cases of human trafficking involving a hotel and, additionally, 75 percent of the survivors it surveyed had some contact with a hotel.

Hilton distributes the human trafficking cards in "key markets where signage in public facing areas and guest rooms has proved useful," wrote Max Verstraete, vice president of corporate responsibility, in a statement to Pacific Standard.

When asked if the hotel chain had any qualms about ICE's treatment of the people it detains, Hilton had no further comment.

Similarly, ICE did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

While ICE's mandate includes "fighting human smuggling and human trafficking," the agency has received criticism for its propensity to detain and deport victims of human trafficking, along with other undocumented immigrants caught in its operations. The National Human Trafficking Hotline attempts to ask callers for their consent to report their experiences to law enforcement agencies like ICE, but immediately informs the authorities in cases where the Hotline suspects child abuse or imminent harm.

Other organizations like Freedom Network USA, the largest coalition serving human trafficking victims in the U.S., are more apprehensive about the role of ICE and the DHS, which oversees ICE, in addressing human trafficking.

"Immigrant victims [of human trafficking] are often arrested and held in detention without being identified as trafficking victims," says Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network USA. "Detained immigrants are held in prisons in remote locations with limited access to attorneys, making it unlikely that they will be identified as a victim, and are therefore likely to be deported."

Trafficking victims, themselves, are wary of law enforcement. A survey of victims' service providers conducted in 2017 by Freedom Network USA, Polaris, and the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, the nation's largest service provider for victims of human trafficking, revealed that 82 percent of providers had clients with immigration-related reservations about contacting the police, and 70 percent had clients with such concerns about attending criminal court proceedings.

But by the letter of the law, trafficking victims should have nothing to fear. Bruggeman identifies two avenues of immigration relief that trafficking victims should receive under federal law: "continued presence" and T visas. Continued presence is short-term immigration protection that ICE can grant to victims during investigations into the crimes committed against them. T visas are granted by DHS to victims, allowing them to remain in the U.S. for up to four years and possibly also obtain lawful permanent residence.

Yet applications for continued presence, which must be submitted by law enforcement, are "almost never done," according to Bruggeman, and DHS has been known to deport victims who are in the process of filing for T visas. According to the attorney general's latest report on the subject, only 160 victims were granted continued presence in 2017 and only 669—out of 1,175 applicants—were given T visas.

Thus, Bruggeman concludes, "Human trafficking advocates cannot trust that immigrant trafficking victims will be protected by DHS."

Freedom Network USA and other anti-trafficking organizations acknowledge that hotels are one of the primary sites of human trafficking, but they stress that there is an important distinction that needs to be made between voluntary sex work and sex trafficking—both of which can occur in hotels.

"Human trafficking absolutely occurs in and around hotels of all kinds—both labor and sex trafficking," Bruggeman says. "Workers have been forced to work in housekeeping and in grounds crews, domestic workers have been forced to work for diplomats living in high-end hotels, and sex trafficking occurs within hotel rooms across the country."

But, she acknowledges, hotels that want to adequately address human trafficking cannot simply rely on their guests reporting suspicious activity to ICE.

"Hotel chains should work with local service providers to develop a protocol that will offer suspected trafficking victims information and support," Bruggeman says. "They should not assume that all sex workers are victims and should not assume that all victims want to be reported to law enforcement."

As an alternative to reporting cases to ICE, Freedom Network USA advocates for a "human rights-based approach" to addressing human trafficking. The organization focuses on advocacy in promoting policies that protect the rights of victims and training for professionals to adequately address the material, legal, and trauma-related needs of victims.

Rather than calling ICE, Bruggeman recommends that individuals who encounter suspected instances of human trafficking provide victims with outreach materials from local programs. These programs can assist victims in finding shelter, obtaining legal aid, and connecting with social services—and, as Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking explains, "Our hotline is not associated with law enforcement or any government agencies."