Guest post by Caroline Parker, doctoral student in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences/Anthropology at Columbia University.
Review of Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States, by Denise Brennan (Duke University Press, 2014).
Denise Brennan’s lucid and meticulously researched investigation of human trafficking in the United States adeptly accomplishes many of the ambitions of engaged anthropological inquiry. She brings to life, with technical expertise, political commitment and stringent clarity, the daily grind―the ‘making ends meet’―of a group of women who were formerly trafficked. Renouncing the sensationalist simplifications that continue to plague popular discourse on human trafficking, her moral project is a re-humanizing one, appreciable from the opening line of the book, Maria Loves to Sing.
From the outset, Brennan makes it clear that there’s no single, archetypical, obviously recognizable trafficked person―which is bad news for recent app-innovations, such as the flight attendant app, for photographing people who ‘look’ like they've been trafficked. Her informants come from diverse geographical places and disparate social standings. The different life experiences that the main characters bring with them to the US, along with the varying conditions of their trafficking situations, powerfully illustrate the illegibility of ‘trafficking victims’ as a recognizable social kind. One of the book’s earliest messages―and an important one for practitioners―is that migrants who are trafficked look a lot like other migrants. One informant, Angela, a green card holder and legal resident, had lived on the East Coast for over a decade when she decided to take a chance on a job in childcare in Texas. Immediately she entered into a situation of labor exploitation, working seven days a week for $250. Despite her ten years of experience in the United States and having a large network of friends, she didn’t immediately leave her traffickers, for fear that they’d make good on their threat to have her green card revoked. As an English-speaking legal resident, trafficked into childcare rather than sex work, Angela doesn’t fit the stereotype of a trafficking victim. Brennan emphasizes that few people do; many initially contact social services because of other issues (domestic violence, legal assistance, etc.), and, as one New York social worker quoted explains, ‘They do not come to us talking about trafficking’ (p. 111). This unrecognizability of people who are trafficked poses serious problems for anti-trafficking programs, such as recent UNODC campaigns, that call on the general public to ‘wake-up’ to and recognize victims of trafficking.
Brennan’s overarching intellectual goal is to contextualize human trafficking within its global political economy and to show that the thing we call human trafficking is a tiny part of a much larger global regime of labor exploitation. The book is split into two parts. Part I, ‘The Assault on Workers,’ documents the widespread exploitation of migrant labor and provides the book’s theoretical and political argument. Anti-immigrant policies and practices such as workplace raids and ‘secure communities’ programs (see pp. 41-48) increase vulnerability to labor exploitation among undocumented workers. Immigration policy combined with unregulated labor conditions, greatly facilitated by extensive sub-contracting and unchecked employer control, together erode employer responsibility, and push many migrants into situations that are ‘almost trafficking’ (p. 40). Working below minimum wage in garment manufacturing, agriculture, poultry processing, restaurants, and domestic work, migrant workers often endure egregious physical injury and abuse. Brennan argues that human trafficking is ‘migration gone awry’ (p. 6), and may be seen as a logical consequence and necessary correlate of anti-immigrant policies and lax labor laws in the United States. Within this global regime of labor exploitation, only a small minority will qualify for T-visas, which is the legally recognized status as ‘trafficking victims.’ Recipients of T-visas are entitled them to remain in the US for three years, at which time they may apply for permanent residency. As Brennan shows, T-visas aren’t given out for ‘a little bit of exploitation’ (p. 11). While exact figures are hard to come by, Brennan calculates that roughly 3,500 T-visas have been issued since 2002, which is significantly lower than the 14,500-17,500 persons estimated by the US government to work in forced labor conditions in the United States (pp. 200-201).
In book’s second chapter, Brennan explores why it is that people ‘choose’ to stay with their traffickers. As we learn, most of her informants were not physically forced to stay with their traffickers; not one of them was found ‘chained to a bed in a brothel,’ as phrased by Dina Francesca Haynes. This chapter is ethnographically rich and perhaps the most theoretically animated, and she draws upon Lila Abu-Lughod, James Scott, and Steven Lukes (pp. 82-87) to show that what can appear to be acquiescence to subjugation may more accurately be interpreted as a waiting game, in which people who are trafficked stall, plot, and strategize their escape. Brennan’s attention to agency and subjectivity adds nuance to psychological-trauma based explanations of why people stay with their traffickers, which, while not totally incorrect, can often be inattentive to the social and political context in which non-violent forms of coercion occur. Many people in situations of trafficking believe they will be arrested and deported should they leave their traffickers, which isn’t, of course, an unreasonable assumption―something to which traffickers (and also exploitative employers) are highly attuned.
Part II, ‘Life after Forced Labor,’ follows her informants as they begin the long and protracted process of building a life (or gaining ‘home-sense’) in the US. The focus on life after trafficking represents a key empirical contribution to the trafficking literature. While accounts of trafficking are often biased towards focusing on the melodrama of abuse, escape, and rescue (see work by Carol Vance for a discussion of this), Brennan ‘picks up where these sensationalistic accounts leave off’ (p. 4), and deals with the more mundane aspects of life after trafficking. She follows her informants as they move from shelters into private homes, find work (and sometimes lose it again), fall in love, learn English, and negotiate all of the other ‘nuts and bolts’ of adjusting to life in a new country.
A sobering and lesser-known fact about life after trafficking: most government assistance granted to T-visa recipients is suspended after about one year (p. 116), meaning that people have limited time to ‘resettle.’ The first year is thus often spent finding work, taking English language classes, and securing housing. Although ‘recovery’ is the language of anti-trafficking services, and although many T-visa grantees find themselves inundated (at least for the first year) with offers of mental health counseling and psychological therapy, according to the exasperated social workers and case managers that she interviews, many don’t want therapy. The most immediate material challenges that formerly trafficked people face are in finding work and housing. With limited time to resettle before government benefits (including free mental health services) run out, ‘making ends meet’ is an enormous challenge. According the Brennan, this language of ‘trauma’ and the emphasis on ‘recovery’ miss the point. The challenges that formerly trafficked people face are much like those of other poor migrants, and even other poor Americans, making formerly trafficked people distinct largely only in their relative social isolation.
One of the saddest elements of the book was the re-entry of formerly trafficked people into situations of labor exploitation. Undermined by the same vulnerabilities that led them into trafficking in the first place, their lack of education and English language skills mean that many end up following co-ethnics back into insecure and under-regulated labor sects. Their unwavering determination to find work means that many formerly trafficked people re-enter situations of labor exploitation, and go on to accept jobs which pay below minimum wage, as revealed in this quote by one social worker from California: ‘We tell them this is not legal and that these are sweatshops and exploitative conditions. They go to places like restaurants and get paid under the table. It’s a dilemma. But they see their larger community of co-ethnics is in the same situation’ (p. 178).
Life Interrupted is carefully written and commendably well researched. Although her moral and intellectual project is manifest throughout the book, Brennan often takes a back seat and allows her informants to do the talking. This allows her to relate insights from differently situated social informants, and brings to light the multiple differences and contradictions in perspectives of formerly trafficked people and those that work with them. Her inclination to give voice to her informants and to privilege clarity and accessibility speaks to her political intervention as an engaged anthropologist. Royalties of the book are donated to a nonprofit (Survivor Leadership Training Fund), and the book ends with an appendix, ‘Ideas and Resources for Action’ (pp. 193-198), in which with immigration reform and workers rights are paramount.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):
Parker, C. (2015) Book Review: Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States. Available at:/ (Accessed [date]).