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  • Has someone taken your passport?Everyday Surveillance of the Migrant Laborer as Trafficked Subject
  • Annie Isabel Fukushima (bio)

Human trafficking is a twenty-first century human rights concern that is legally defined in the United States in the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 as encompassing both labor and sex trafficking:

(A) sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or

(B) the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

(United States, Congress, Public Law, 114 Stat. 1470)

Survivors of human trafficking and anti-traffickers regularly use forms of life narrative—biographical, autobiographical, and testimonial—for a variety of purposes. Survivor stories of suffering circulate in the courtroom, in Congressional hearings, in the news, in social media, in documentary films, and in memoirs. As these stories of real people's experiences circulate, they develop a "trafficking plot" initiated by the absence of a passport. Anti-traffickers, including law enforcement, social service providers, and attorneys, ask a common question when encountering a person they suspect has been trafficked: "Has someone taken your passport?" (U.S. Department of State, "Facts About Human Trafficking"; Fukushima and Hua 51). An answer of "yes" indicates that the person has limited mobility and no control of their document—hallmarks of human trafficking. The missing passport tethers the life story of the trafficked subject to the questions of citizenship, legality, and victimhood.

The seemingly simple question "has someone taken your passport?" provides [End Page 5614] the litmus test for suspected human trafficking, enabling extensive interviewing and investigation. The technical uses of personal disclosure to mobilize investigation facilitate what Ebony Coletu refers to as "biographic mediation." Biographic mediation describes any institutional demand for personal narrative to determine the allocation of resources. In this case, a migrant's lack of a passport provokes a series of questions that authorizes civilian hotline reporting, police investigation, a potential asylum claim, and access to social services. The personal narratives surrounding migrants without passports also shape decisions about what counts as trafficking and who counts as trafficked, and stories about trafficked subjects may also facilitate a pathway to citizenship denied to other undocumented migrants. To count as a trafficked person, the person's passport must be unavailable due to a particular kind of labor exploitation that limits mobility. Under these circumstances, the lack of a passport—when the passport has been withheld, taken, or provided fraudulently—makes a person eligible for a pathway to citizenship as a victim of visa fraud and identity theft. By contrast, the criminalized migrant is a person without a valid visa, who acquires an undocumented identity and is deportable upon discovery of lapsed status, often without a legal path to citizenship.

The use of a particular life story of trafficking, in which the passport is withheld, taken, or provided fraudulently, is central to anti-trafficking appeals for spectators and witnesses. The survivor's personal account of being trafficked, when repurposed in campaigns, teaches the public how to see specific transnational migrant laborers as social and legal "victims." Therefore, the passport and mechanisms of documentation that emerge in a trafficking survivor's account are central to legal and social appeals for recognition and a pathway to citizenship. Stories about how transnational migrant laborers arrive in the US and experience violence not only have a legal function, but when circulated more broadly they redistribute policing functions to the public as a civic duty. The proliferation of memoirs, films, news reports, publicly accessible court records, and anti-trafficking campaigns calls on the everyday person to be not merely a spectator but rather a witness who is called to act. Everyday witnesses collaborate with police to interrogate migrant legality at the neighborhood level. While answering "yes" to the question "has someone taken your passport?" can allow trafficked persons access to vital resources, the question of who is empowered to ask that question—to solicit, interpret, and mobilize the...


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pp. 561-585
Launched on MUSE
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