Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States, by Denise Brennan

Lee Maril on how immigration policies prolong the misery of the exploited

February 27, 2014

Given the vast number of scholarly studies of immigration, a reasonable person might believe that there is little left to learn about those who legally or illegally cross national borders to find better work. But as Denise Brennan shows here, there is not only much more to learn, but also much that needs changing.

The author, chair of the department of anthropology at Georgetown University, listens with great care to those like Tatiana who offer first-hand accounts of their exploitation. “I was full of dreams about coming to America. So many dreams…I thought I would be independent and that I would build my own life. I thought I would get an education and do certain things in my life that I’ve wanted to do.” But after paying smugglers in Russia to bring her to the US by way of Mexico, Tatiana had her pay cheque routinely gouged by her new employers, leaving her barely able to survive from one day to the next.

One might also assume that a country reliant on both legal and illegal immigration might also generate thoughtful public policy. But the scholarly horde has largely failed to acknowledge the lives of immigrant women such as Tatiana, Maria, Flo, Carmen, Eva and many others interviewed here, in favour of constructing rigid academic theories fortressed by dicey measurement. In contrast, Brennan demonstrates that immigration is less a single event than a complex process revolving around the quality of life sustained after a new destination is reached. She shows us how one must, like Nanci, come to some kind of terms with a horrendous experience of coercion and fear; she details Suzanne’s efforts to build a new home in a new land; and she documents Maria’s prolonged struggles to gain respect in her workplace.

One commonality is always present: human suffering. Whether it be Mexican agricultural workers risking their lives by crossing a desert to find work, or the Egyptians and Pakistanis crossing the Mediterranean in fragile boats whose lives depend on rescue at sea by the Italian navy, suffering is omnipresent.

Time and again Brennan takes on the sacred cows of immigration. Central to her overall argument is a consideration of the plight of those lucky enough to be awarded T Nonimmigrant Status (known as T‑visas) for having been trafficked into forced labour. The US awards fewer than 5,000 such permits a year. But in spite of favoured legal status, at best these immigrants and their families still face years of hardship. One activist quoted here concludes: “There is bad pay or no pay all the time. If you complain about the safety conditions…you get fired.” “Women endure sexual harassment. When a few women on one farm spoke out about sexual assault, they were fired.”

And what about those millions who do not receive T‑visas? Vulnerable to exploitation, they are subject to daily mistreatment by employers. For all immigrants, the American dream can easily become an American nightmare.

Brennan questions many reflexive assumptions about what constitutes fair public policy, even daring to turn over some weighty rocks to identify the creepy-crawlies beneath. One stunning example of political dysfunction and unintended consequences was George W. Bush’s decision in 2004 to launch, in the name of ending human trafficking, a war on sex work. In this sleight of hand, efforts to address the physical and mental abuses suffered by the vast majority of legal and illegal sex workers were forfeited in favour of sensationalisation by the media, soon followed by Hollywood celebrities, at the “rescue” of apparently trafficked sex workers, some of whom complained vehemently about being saved. The CIA first estimated that there were 50,000 such cases a year, but then, when its credibility was questioned, reduced the number by 90 per cent. Bush’s magic trick gained the support of Tea Party ideologues and some national feminist groups, both of which inappropriately adopted the language of US abolitionists to reframe all sex work as human slavery.

Minor quibbles in methodology aside, Life Interrupted is a must-read for those seeking to understand why immigration policies, US and otherwise, can prolong human misery. Bluntly confronting the risks and dangers all immigrants face when they must leave their homes in search of better lives, this admirable book is a major contribution to productive ways to rethink global immigration.

Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States

By Denise Brennan
Duke University Press, 304pp, £57.00 and £15.99
ISBN 9780822356240 and 56332
Published 1 April 2014

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