Human trafficking in the United States

Human trafficking represents one of the most severe and widespread violations of human rights in today’s world, transcending race, social class, demographics, and gender. It affects communities in every corner of the globe, where traffickers, driven by greed, operate with impunity, exploiting the most vulnerable for their economic gain. This crime not only has a profound psychological and physical impact on the victims but also carries economic and social consequences that are not yet fully understood, underscoring the need for ongoing research to improve community response and educational and protection policies.

Global Economic Impact of Trafficking

Human trafficking is an illicit industry that generates approximately $150 billion annually worldwide. According to 2016 data from the International Labour Organization (ILO), about 40.3 million individuals were forced into situations of modern slavery, with a prevalence of 5.4 victims per thousand people globally. Of these, approximately 29 million, or 72%, were women and girls. Additionally, nearly 5 million were victims of forced sexual exploitation, with children making up over 20% of these cases. The figures also reveal that 25 million people were subjected to forced labor and 15.4 million to forced marriages, showing a crisis of fundamental freedoms.

Differentiating Human Trafficking and Smuggling

It is crucial to distinguish between human trafficking and smuggling. The U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), established in 2000, defines trafficking as the sexual or labor exploitation using force, fraud, or coercion. In contrast, smuggling involves illegal border crossing, generally with the consent of the smuggled person, although this act can lead to a trafficking situation to settle debts with smugglers.

Essential Elements of Trafficking: A-M-P Model

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) and the TVPA highlight three key components in trafficking: Action, Means, and Purpose (A-M-P). This framework helps to identify situations where there was no consent from the victim due to the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Any recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or acquisition of individuals under these conditions can constitute a violation.

Legally, any minor under 18 years involved in commercial sex acts is considered a trafficking victim, regardless of the presence of coercion, because legally they cannot consent to such acts. This condition underscores the special vulnerability of minors to exploitation.

Legislative Victories and the 3 P’s Approach

Since its adoption, the TVPA has spurred numerous legislations in the U.S. to combat this crime, based on the 13th Amendment which prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude since 1865. The law emphasizes three main areas: protection, prosecution, and prevention.


Protection measures include issuing the T visa, which allows trafficking victims to stay in the U.S. and, in some cases, obtain permanent residency. These provisions are vital to prevent revictimization upon returning to their countries of origin or within the U.S., especially in the two years following their first victimization.


The TVPA has also strengthened the tools available to prosecutors, allowing them to prosecute traffickers more effectively and ensuring restitution for exploited victims. The revisions and reauthorizations of the law have refined and expanded its scope to include all severe forms of human trafficking.


Prevention has been bolstered by domestic and international incentives to improve conditions that lead to trafficking, including education and training efforts aimed especially at healthcare professionals, who are often the first point of contact for victims.


In summary, human trafficking is a crime that undermines the foundations of freedom and human dignity. Through legislation, education, and international cooperation, significant progress has been made in combating this phenomenon, but much work remains to be done. It is imperative to continue research, raise awareness, and implement effective policies to eradicate this evil from our societies.

Toney-Butler TJ, Ladd M, Mittel O. Human Trafficking. 2021 Jul 27. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan–. PMID: 28613660.