“A Systemic Problem”: Dana Ullman Speaks with Human Trafficking Victims for The Texas Observer

Nov 4, 2019
Photographer Spotlight

A lot of misconceptions of human trafficking [exist] because we don’t talk about it accurately. We need a better understanding of what human trafficking is and isn’t. The media is essential when it comes to helping the public understand the nuances of human trafficking, but it doesn’t always get it right.

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Dana Ullman is determined to detail the intricacies of and dispel the myths surrounding human trafficking, an issue affecting us all. Before we get into her work — and as a way to better understand this multi-faceted topic — let's define human trafficking. In Dana's words: 

Thanks Cliff!

As you read on, keep in mind one of the things that Dana uncovered: human trafficking can, and does, happen to documented immigrants in America who are in the "legal work visa system." This is an admittedly dense subject, but investigative journalism of this scope will always be a necessity. Thankfully, there are organizations that remain dedicated to giving people like Dana the resources they need to get to the bottom of these disturbing developments.

I became aware of labor trafficking through our legal work visa system in 2015 when I was a reporting fellow with the International Center for Journalists [ICFJ]. I connected with the incredible Damayan, a New York-based worker-led organization providing legal aid and support services for exploited workers and survivors of human trafficking. It was through Damayan that I began to understand that there was a systemic problem.

Slowly but surely, Dana began to tease out human trafficking misperceptions, separating myth and reality through hours of tireless research. 

Sex trafficking gets more attention from mainstream media, but research reveals that labor trafficking is much more prevalent. In fact, most victims aren’t smuggled through 'wide open areas between our ports of entry,' as President Trump has suggested. They come legally through those ports of entry, many on temporary H-2A work visas.

Dana wanted to understand the mechanisms behind this cycle of forced labor. In order to properly document these troubling trends, she sought funding from the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) to kickstart her investigation. Because she was previously a reporting fellow with IWMF and had written about the subject for ICFJ and Colorlines, Dana’s proposal was accepted.

When the opportunity arose to submit a proposal based on tackling the underreported subject of forced labor in agriculture, I just knew I had to take it. 

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The probe, published in The Texas Observer, took Dana deep into the heart of Texas and Mexico, where she offered witness to the stories of workers in the H-2A temporary visa program, which has been criticized as “legalized slavery.” While not everyone was willing to divulge their personal struggles (for fear of reprimand, or worse, deportation), some did open up to Dana.

Consent and trust are everything. You can’t just go to a community of isolated workers and start talking about human trafficking — it's a total shut down. I met a group of H-2A workers in Plainview, Texas and connected with their crew leader. He appreciated what I was doing.

Once Dana got in the good graces of the workers' leader, and, by proxy, the workers themselves, she answered questions about “wages and contracts” and realized that most of these people “have no idea” what rights and protections they can claim. From there, Dana continued to listen to as many stories as she could, hearing the same themes again and again.

These guys are fathers and sons, and it was apparent how hard it was emotionally for them to be away from their families and communities for up to eight months. One worker broke down in tears showing me pictures of his three-month-old daughter. They compromise so much to support their family. When they don’t get paid or worse, it’s devastating.

Thanks Lindsay!

One of those "or worse" stories from Dana’s gut-wrenching write-up belongs to Javier. An altruistic soul, Javier shared that he was forced to continue working after suffering a painful head injury on the job, hoping his testimony would mean “others would not go through what he did.” Creating imagery in conjunction with such personal stories is a tricky balancing act. As such, most of Dana’s photos are intimate while simultaneously providing a shroud of anonymity.

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I was very cautious about identification. I find ways to visualize experiences while protecting the sources who risk talking to me. I’m drawn to objects of value such as prayer cards, which migrant workers tuck into their wallets for protection as they travel.

Prayer cards

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of Dana’s investigation is that these heartbreaking stories are just the tip of the iceberg. Human trafficking is an epidemic, a systemic scourge left unaddressed for decades that has metastasized into a global issue. Thus, assigning blame is incredibly difficult.

We need to look at how adequate oversight and enforcement is at the top. We also need to look at gaps in the system, such as illegal recruitment fees charged by labor recruiters and contractors. These intermediaries have created a million-dollar recruitment industry that thrives on unregulated loopholes and plants the seeds for a forced labor situation because these workers arrive in the U.S. in debt and at-risk for abuse.

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We want to point the finger and say he/she is the culprit so we can be done with it. And sure, we have bad actors and unscrupulous companies that intentionally commit crimes, but they too are part of a 'system' that allows such abuses. Industrialization of agriculture has failed a lot of farmers. In the dairy industry, for example, we have over-production with under-consumption, a volatile market, and a trade war. One consequence is that the bottom line becomes more important than human beings.

This web of immorality and criminality brings us back to Dana's main sticking point: the public’s misunderstanding of the core issues. In order to properly assess what’s going on, we need to eschew the influence of optics and consider the entirety of the human trafficking spectrum. As established earlier, it’s a much broader definition than most people think. 

Google 'human trafficking' and you’ll see mainly black and white images of a girl handcuffed or with a hand over her mouth. These images construct how we see victims of trafficking. But they are all around us, across any industry, [laboring] on farms, pushing strollers in Manhattan, and working on post-disaster construction sites as well as in places like spas and fast food restaurants. 

Thanks Cliff!

This problem has far-reaching effects, but it begins with the exploitation of vulnerable people. One of the lowest paid occupations nationally, farmworkers earn on average less than $25,000 annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Worse yet, wage theft is common practice. Still, these individuals, who are responsible for harvesting most of the produce that shows up in our supermarkets, remain incredibly vital to our economy and lifestyle. In Dana’s exposé, she quotes Brandi Reed, the director of education for Amarillo’s Family Support Services, the sole services provider for human trafficking victims in the Texas Panhandle. Brandi puts it bluntly: 

Inevitably, we need people to come here and work our farmlands. We need them as much as they need us.

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Take away immigrant or foreign labor and imagine the economic toll. A farmer told me that, if you took away the foreign labor force, 'there goes the industry and the school system.' These things are so intertwined, yet there’s a lot of resistance to these workers.

It’s impossible to detail every aspect of the disease that is human trafficking, but Dana’s courageous work gives us a good starting point. We must keep in mind that human trafficking is much more prevalent than we’d care to admit, and its definition a far bigger umbrella than most of us would imagine. But, as any good journalist would, Dana uses the little story — the human experience — to elucidate the big picture and make sure we’re beginning our conversations from a knowledgeable place.   

I hope the work serves to inform and illuminate something hidden in plain sight: that human trafficking really can happen anywhere. We need to broaden the narrative about what human trafficking looks like to truly address it. I believe documenting worker stories is a way to get them into a conversation that is not complete without them.

To help fund the work of Dana and other women journalists, donate at impact.iwmf.org/give.

Check out more of Dana's work at ullmanphoto.com.

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