Human Trafficking or Human Smuggling? Why the Two Crimes Aren’t Interchangeable


Under the scalding sun, dozens were crowded into the back of an 18-wheeler until a stop at a Texas Walmart on Sunday revealed that several had died, according to authorities.

More were critically ill from heat exposure and dehydration.

Although the origin and destination of those in the truck were unclear, police deemed the incident a case of human trafficking.

"We're looking at a human trafficking crime here this evening," San Antonio Police Chief William McManus told reporters on Sunday.

However, Thomas Homan, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, referred to the "horrific" incident as a case of human smuggling, saying smuggling networks "have repeatedly shown a reckless disregard for those they smuggle."

Experts said it remains unclear whether the migrants were the victims of human trafficking or human smuggling — which "are distinct criminal activities, and the terms are not interchangeable," ICE says on its website.

Human smuggling centers on transportation and evading the immigration laws of the United States, according to ICE. Human trafficking is based on the exploitation of people by fraud, force or coercion.

Human trafficking is also broken into two categories: sex trafficking and labor trafficking.

While sex trafficking relates to a person who is forced to engage in a commercial sex act, labor trafficking is when a person is subjected to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.

"This case of transporting people is being described as trafficking when it's about smuggling," Denise Brennan, a professor at and chairwoman of the anthropology department at Georgetown University, told NBC News. "It's about the transport of individuals. They're going to be transported over borders that they don't have legal access to cross. That's not trafficking."

Brennan, who has written several books about trafficking and has worked with victims for more than 10 years, said the real beneficiaries of smuggling are the smugglers.

"The word is that it's just costing more and more money to cross," she said, so smugglers are charging more.

"People who are going to return to home or start a new life or are fleeing violence and can't look back, they take the terms that they're handed," she said.

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