The 13th annual Human Trafficking Conference returns to South Texas College (STC) in McAllen on April 22 with a pair of pre-conference events: an Informal Art Exhibit Opening and a film screening of Irioweniasi: El Hilo de la Luna. The conference will run from April 23 through April 24 with a series of panels, discussions, and presentations.

The conference will include “all aspects of human trafficking: the push factors, the dangerous journey many migrants face, the intersection between smuggling and trafficking, and servitude in the destination countries,” according to the conference organizers.

The conference was organized by the Women’s Studies Committee of STC, alongside Fuerza del Valle Workers Center, the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley’s (UTRGV) Department of Criminal Justice, Alpha Phi Sigma, Omega Phi Chapter, the Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales, Unidad Académica Multidisciplinaria Reynosa Aztlán, and the Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales, Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León, Mexico.

The purpose of the conference is “to raise community awareness about the pervasiveness of the labor and sex trafficking trades, both around the world and in our own neighborhoods, to provide a forum for networking and training opportunities for professionals and practitioners within related fields, and ultimately to take part in the larger international conversation about how to stop this insidious crime,” according to the conference’s mission statement.

The Rio Grande Valley’s location as a border community played a role in the conference being started, said Jennifer Clark, Associate Professor of Political Science and chair of Women’s Studies at STC.

Flyer from Facebook event page

Dangerous Crossings

Many of the presentations will touch specifically on the Rio Grande Valley and phenomenon that occurs along our border. One of the presentations, “Dangerous Crossings: Deaths and Human Rights Violations,” will feature Efrén C. Olivares, Director of Texas Civil Rights Project’s (TCRP) Racial and Economic Justice Program; Jennifer Harbury, Attorney with the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (TRLA); and Justin Tullius, Associate Executive Director at Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). The presentation will take place on April 23.

This is the second time that Olivares will present at this conference. He shared that the presentation would cover cases that TCRP has worked on.

“I’m going to start from examples of cases that we are handling, related to deaths, both at or near the border and at the checkpoint,” Olivares said. “That is going to be the grounding of the discussion, and then from there expand it to some of the issues that relate to dying or deaths of immigrants, between the river and the checkpoint area.”

Some of the issues that will be discussed include the obligations that agencies — such as the Border Patrol and Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) — have to make sure that people in their custody do not die.

“That’s going to be the main thing,” Olivares said, “as well as the circumstances under which people do die. Like what leads to them dying, and those kinds of issues. Why do people die when they are trying to cross? You would think that if someone was trying to cross their greatest risk is getting caught but in fact, it’s actually dying and sometimes dying horrible deaths.”

VOICE

On March 24, the conference will also host two panels by law enforcement agencies that may be deemed controversial. One of those is the “Immigration Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations: ‘Victim Centered Assistance, Immigration Relief Options, & VOICE Program.’”

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The panel is made up entirely of representatives from ICE and border patrol, including a border patrol agent, the Communications Director for the U.S. Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector, and a Community Relations Officer from the Department of Homeland Security’s Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) office.

The latter office may sound familiar to some. VOICE was created last year by one of President Trump’s immigration executive orders. It was “established to fulfill President Trump’s commitment to help people affected by criminal activity perpetrated by criminal aliens,” according to its website.

Since its establishment, controversy has surrounded the office. Immigration advocates and organizations have characterized the office and the efforts behind it as xenophobic and as in line with the Trump administration’s general anti-immigrant efforts. The office has also repeatedly come under fire for its inability to produce actual statistics or stories to back up the Trump administration’s allegation of the staggering crime by undocumented immigrants.

Last year, the agency also came under fire when one of its online programs which was set up to provide information on undocumented immigrants in custody and to provides users with automated custody status and location notifications. The program made the federally protected personal identifying information of detained immigrants available. Immigration advocacy organizations and lawyers accused the office of placing victims of domestic violence, human trafficking, sexual assault, and other violent crimes in danger.

When questioned about the panel, Clark shared that organizers were aware the agencies were controversial. However, it’s important to have “all the integral parts of this whole phenomenon of human trafficking,” according to Clark.

“The reason we invited them is that they are part of the problem,” Clark said. “They are all part of the problem, and we can’t fix the problem without them all being at the table…Human Traffic Coalitions cannot function without having law enforcement agencies, whether you agree with them and what their policies are, or not.” Clark added that attendees would have an opportunity to voice concerns or critiques to the panelists after their presentation.

We asked Clark if she thought undocumented students or community members might feel unsafe or unwelcome at this panel.

“No I don’t,” Clark said. “Because we’ve invited Homeland Security to put together one or two panels at every conference that we’ve had, including last year. They come and they give their presentationm and I don’t think it’s going be at a risk to anybody. I don’t think anybody at the conference is going to feel threatened by this one panel.”

Allyson Duarte, a local resident, told Neta she was excited to obtain “exposure from people who are actually on the ground.”

“The topic that we’re going to be covering is difficult to discuss,” Duarte stated. “I am really interested to learn what’s going on in the area.”

Duarte, who has Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), noted, however, that she considers the presence of immigration enforcement officials a “conflict of interest” and expressed skepticism at the idea that a dialogue with immigration enforcement officials could occur at the conference. For future conferences, she suggested organizers should reconsider inviting immigration enforcement officials.

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“I know that a lot of people will be intimidated and just feel kind of anxious about them being there, especially if they’re undocumented,” Duarte stated. “I think these are the kind of populations we’re trying to reach because usually when you’re undocumented you’re more vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation…If we’re not reaching them, how are we going to prevent these things from happening?”

Other Panels

A media panel titled “Transnational Human Trafficking and Organized Crime” will also be taking place on April 24 with panelists Melissa del Bosque, a Lannan Reporting Fellow with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute; Lise Olsen, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle; and Aaron Nelson, a reporter for the San Antonio Express. The moderator for this discussion will be Victor Castillo, who is with the Border Center for Journalists and Bloggers.

Bosque is well-known for her Texas Observer article “The Human Cost Of The Border Security Buildup,” which covered the deaths of Marco Antonio Castro and Jose Leonardo Coj Cumar in Starr County at the hands of Texas Department of Public Safety trooper, Miguel Avila. During lunch, Bosque will also have a book signing session of her new book “Bloodlines: The True Story of a Drug Cartel.”

Other scheduled presentations from people traveling to the Valley include “Centroamérica: Entre las Deportaciones y la Violencia” with Óscar Martínez of El Faro. Martinez co-founded “Sala Negra,” an organization that investigates police killings in El Salvador. Encarni Pindado, an internationally recognized documentary photographer, will be part of a presentation titled “Central American Women Migration.” Daniel Castellanos will also be returning to the conference with a presentation titled “Labor Trafficking,” where he will be representing both the National Guest Worker Alliance (NGWA) and the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice. Additionally, Cruz Salucio and Marley Moynahan will be representing the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and speaking on their history of organizing in Florida and the boycott against Wendy’s in a panel titled “Uprooting Modern-Day Slavery in America’s Fields.”

The conference will also feature local presents such as in the “Labor Trafficking in Texas” panel in which Stacie Jonas of the Mercedes TRLA office will be participating and through the “Migrant Rights: Non-Profit Organizations’ Response to the Plight of Migrants” panel in which Eduardo Canales of the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities, Rachel Alvarez of Refugee Services of South Texas, and Jose Torres of TRLA will all speak. The panel will be moderated by Hector Guzman Lopez of Fuerza del Valle.

According to Clark, the main focus for this conference and the panelists that will be the border and human trafficking issues that arise in border communities.

“This year we are focused on border issues,” Clark said. “So we are looking at the dynamics happening here along the border, and at the same time, looking at the global issues and how they relate. So there is a focus on the border and restricted border policies but at the same time the global aspect of trafficking in general, and the reason why people migrate.”

Those interested in attending the conference can register here. For a full schedule of the conference, click here.

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Lissette Castillo contributed to this report.

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