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Experts: Trump's tape-bound women trafficking claim is misleading

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CNN's Polo Sandoval fact-checks President Trump's human trafficking claims, which he uses to justify why there should be a wall along the southern border.

Posted: Jan 28, 2019 8:10 AM
Updated: Jan 28, 2019 8:10 AM

In Friday's Rose Garden comments temporarily ending the shutdown, President Trump repeated an anecdote that has become a common refrain in his arguments for the building of his border wall.

"Women are tied up," Trump said. "They're bound. Duct tape put around their faces, around their mouths. In many cases they can't even breathe."

But Sandra -- a victim of human trafficking whom CNN is identifying only by her first name for her safety -- said that this was far from her experience after being lured across the Rio Grande with promises of a better life. Sandra said she was unaware that she would be exploited by a sex-trafficking operation in the US.

"I don't know where he is getting his information," Sandra told CNN. "As a victim who was brought into the US, I was not bound or gagged with tape."

Three legal experts who regularly work with human trafficking victims in the United States interviewed by CNN all agree with Sandra's assertion that Trump's vivid descriptions of women being bound with duct tape and smuggled across the border are not reflective of the vast majority of human trafficking cases in the US.

"I have worked on human trafficking on multiple continents in multiple countries for more than two decades, and in all the work that I've done with trafficking victims, I have met one who was actually kidnapped and thrown into a car," Martina Vandenberg of Washington D.C.'s Human Trafficking Legal Center said. "It is much easier to coerce people through threats to their families. It is much easier to convince someone that they are heading towards a better life."

The White House did not respond to repeated requests from CNN for an explanation of the President's comments. Customs and Border Protection declined to comment.

Approximately two-thirds of trafficking victims in the United States are US citizens, according to Vandenberg. Of the smaller percentage of victims that are foreign-born, most legaly come into the US on various visas, unaware of the forced labor or sex that awaits them at the hands of traffickers.

Evangeline Chen of the New York-based nonprofit Safe Horizon, which helps victims of many kinds of abuse, including human trafficking, told CNN that many victims are lured into the country with false promises of a better life. Chen gave the example of a person applying for a job in the US through a recruiting agency and then entering legally with a temporary work visa to fill the job.

"So they come in legally. They come in through legal ports of entry. But once they're here they realize that the employment that's offered and the conditions that they're working is very different than what was promised them," Chen said. "But then at that point, they have been threatened with real force. They have been beaten, they have been threatened with deportation, their families may have been threatened with harm, and then they're forced to stay in that situation and they don't have means to escape."

Sandra echoed that experience, saying that the threats to her family were keeping her under the control of her pimp.

"They don't tie our hands or cover our mouths," she said. "They bring us over with threats of violence against our families. That's the reality."

In a database of 1,435 human trafficking indictments since 2009 maintained by the Human Trafficking Legal Center, Vandenberg said she found only 26 instances of kidnapping and only one mention of a victim being bound with duct tape. That case's victim was a US citizen.

"To see what the trends are in human trafficking, the trends that aren't sort of discernable when you are working on individual cases but can really only be seen from a 50,000-foot level, when you are looking at all of the aggregated data," Vandenberg said. "And you know, one case mentioning duct tape, the way Donald Trump talks about this, it makes it sound like this is common practice, that every single case has this particular fact scenario, and he's just making this up out of whole cloth."

The experts all cautioned that the President's rhetoric about human trafficking could obscure the horrific reality that most trafficking victims experience. According to Lori Cohen, of Sanctuary for Families' antitrafficking initiative, the US citizens who face trafficking include young adults emerging from the foster care system, LGBT youth who have been kicked out of their homes and adults involved in prostitution.

"I don't know where the President's information is coming from," Cohen said. "I don't believe it's coming from law enforcement. It's certainly not coming from victims, and it's not coming from the dozens of service providers who I've spoken with across the country. None of us have seen anything that looks like what the President has described."

The experts all emphasized that while the President's grim scenario was not impossible, it was highly uncommon.

"The threatened use of harm and the threatened harm to family and friends is far greater than physically restraining a person and dragging them here," Safe Horizon's Chen said. "It's very rarely seen that that's how it's done, at least in my experience."

Sandra said that the President would get a better perspective on human trafficking by speaking to people like herself.

"I don't think believe the President has ever sat down with a human trafficking victim to familiarize himself with their experience," she said. "But I don't think he'll ever do that, because the reality does not fit his fictional narrative."

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