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Sexual surveillance and moral quarantines: a history of anti-trafficking

The US government is using anti-human trafficking laws to intensify the surveillance and criminalisation of migrating women and harden the national security state—as it has since 1875.

Immigration inspectors, circa 1924. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Last year the shining jewel of the US Defense Department, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), announced that it was joining the fight against human trafficking as part of its national security mandate. The agency that helped to create the Internet has developed a programme named Memex to scour the deep web—the part of the Internet ignored by commercial search engines like Google—for evidence of criminal activities. According to DARPA: “The use of forums, chats, advertisements, job postings, hidden services, etc., continues to enable a growing industry of modern slavery.” DARPA invited proposals for computer science programmes interested in helping to shed light on the darker corners of the Internet. Artur Dubrawski, a senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science, was awarded one of these prestigious contracts. He noted, “Originally, we looked for ways to help victims of human trafficking, but we quickly realized the best way to help victims would be to help law enforcement.”

In its 140-year history of fighting sex trafficking, the United States has always prioritised law enforcement, border control, and national security over aid to victims or concerns about privacy. The developers in charge of Memex were themselves concerned about the privacy implications of their work. “We didn’t want to cloud this work unnecessarily by dragging in the specter of snooping and surveillance.” DARPA is only one piece of the United States’ extraordinary national security infrastructure, a conglomeration of institutions that includes the National Security Agency. This agency, as the revelations released by Edward Snowden attest, has routinely used its national security mandate to develop and use mass surveillance systems against American citizens (as well as citizens of other countries). As Katie Cruz noted on this website, trafficking is “bound up with border control and criminalisation.” I would argue that intertwined with border control and criminalisation is national security, and these three issues have been entangled for well over one hundred years in the enforcement of anti-trafficking laws in the United States.

Chinese immigrant women: the original targets of anti-trafficking law

Congress passed the first anti-trafficking law in the United States in 1875 within the context of an anti-Chinese nativist movement. This claimed that Chinese immigration formed a “modern slave trade system”, in the words of a congressman from Massachusetts, because of the high percentage of sex workers among its tiny female population. The Page Act outlawed the importation of women for the purposes of prostitution or “any other immoral purpose” and it made the trafficking of Chinese women from East Asia a felony. Chinese women were frequently assumed to be prostitutes by the racist imaginations of immigration inspectors, largely because many of the women were trafficked to the Western United States by entrepreneurs seeking to take advantage of the large number of male Chinese labourers. So in the aftermath of this law, female immigration from China began to dwindle well before the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act put a stop to most migration from China to the United States. The Immigration Bureau, founded in 1891 to enforce the anti-Chinese laws, saw its responsibility as one of protecting the country from the “morally, mentally and physically deficient,” according to its 1907 annual report. From the Immigration Bureau’s perspective depravity and disease were entangled concepts that centred on the body of the migrating sex worker.

Deciding whether a migrant woman was an immoral-prostitute-in-hiding or an innocent victim of sex trafficking relied on the gendered imaginations of the men who staffed the Immigration Bureau. It was a moral reading of women’s bodies that reflected assumptions about class: attire, demeanour, and hygiene were read as indicators of morality. The reliance on such flimsy readings produced comedies of error at the border. According to New York Times reports from the time, in 1903 an immigrant inspector in New York grew suspicious of one woman who occupied a first-class cabin, yet travelled alone. This was enough to raise suspicions that she might be a well-paid prostitute. As the inspector asked increasingly personal questions, the woman became increasingly “hysterical.” The ensuing investigation revealed that she was the wife of a ship captain based in Seattle and was travelling to reunite with her husband.

A game of cat and mouse

Sex workers who were aware of US immigration laws could easily avoid detection by presenting themselves in ways that satisfied inspectors’ gendered assumptions. In 1909, as part of an investigation into white slavery in Europe, one inspector learned that prostitutes working in the United States frequently returned to Europe to visit their families. When he pointed out to his sex worker interlocutors that such behaviour was in violation of US immigration law, one woman laughed and called him a “chump.” His final report, which recorded these interactions, caused the Immigration Bureau to conclude:

The most alarming feature of this traffic from the bureau’s point of view consists . . . of the vastly increasing numbers of alien prostitutes flooding the country, finding in the existing immigration laws, with their present means of enforcement, only slight impediment to their passage back and forth, and in the great and callous indifference displayed to the existence of these leprous sores upon the body politic in the various cities which throw the cloak of protection over the districts wherein are gathered the brothels, dives, and houses of assignation.

The Immigration Bureau sought to build a stronger moral wall at the border in order to better identify sex workers who were evading the law. It asked Congress to fortify the 1875 law with the Immigration Acts of 1903, 1907, 1910, and 1917. Combined, these outlawed the importation of sex workers, women coming for other ‘immoral’ purposes, and men demonstrating ‘moral turpitude’. They also made the acts of procuring, pimping, and sex work deportable offences. With each additional law, the Immigration Bureau found itself in need of more manpower to carry out its mandate, surveilling the borders and the interior of the country in order to ensure both remained secure.

Year Prostitute Procurer LPC* Total Debarred
1892 80   1002 2164
1893     431 1053
1894 2   802 1389
1895     1714 2419
1896     2012 2799
1897     1277 1617
1898     2261 3030
1899     2599 3798
1900 7   2974 4246
1901 3   2798 3516
1902 3   3944 4974
1903 13   5812 8769
1904 9 3 4798 7994
1905 24 4 7898 11480
1906 30 2 7069 12432
1907 18 1 6866 13064
1908 124 43 3741 10902
1909 323 181 4458 10411
1910 316 179 15927 22607
1911 253 141 12048 22349

Table 1. Prostitutes, Procurers, and LPC’s Excluded from Entry, 1892-1911.
Source: Annual Report for the Commissioner General, 1904-1911
* Aliens likely to become public charges.
 

More powers, more players

The Immigration Bureau was not the only federal agency that used sex trafficking to increase its institutional reach. To supplement the immigration acts, the US Congress passed the White Slave Traffic Act in 1910 (commonly known as the Mann Act) to halt sex trafficking within the US, and to protect what one congressman called the “blue-eyed girl” in America. Enforcement of this expansive law, which made it illegal to take a woman or girl over state borders for the purposes of prostitution, debauchery or “any other immoral purpose,” fell to the young Bureau of Investigation, now the FBI. When the law was passed in 1910, the FBI had only 61 agents, yet by 1914 the agency had over 300 representatives spread throughout the nation. I argue in my book Policing Sexuality that it was the active policing of sex trafficking that led to the national growth of the FBI.

The FBI encountered the same problems as the Bureau of Immigration when it came to identifying sex workers. After a 1917 Supreme Court case upheld the constitutionality of the Mann Act, the Bureau solved this vexing puzzle by policing heterosexuality more broadly, including cases of run-away daughters, adulterous wives, and migrating sex workers. Under this expanded purview, the FBI used the anti-sex trafficking law to justify its increasing oversight of the physical and moral health of the nation.

The Memex programme once again brings sex trafficking firmly under the umbrella of national security. The Obama administration established an expansive vision of national security in its 2010 National Security Strategy, which covers everything from immigration and education to health and scientific innovation. Under this vision the National Security Council’s territory has expanded beyond the traditional focus on international military activities and foreign policy to include trade, organised crime, travel, and a wide array of other activities.

DARPA’s celebration of the law enforcement potential of the Memex project should not be taken lightly. The project significantly increases the surveillance state and makes its findings available to law enforcement. This expanded surveillance is justified by drawing on the discursive and political power of the anti-trafficking movement in the United States, and it will be a powerful gift to law enforcement. But if the history of the surveillance national security state and the enforcement of anti-trafficking laws teaches us anything, it suggests that in the past these initiatives grew the power of the state while criminalising the behaviour of migrating women.

About the author

Jessica R. Pliley is an assistant professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality history at Texas State University. Her book, Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI, examines the enforcement of the United States’ first anti-trafficking law.

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