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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press President Donald Trump speaks Friday in the Rose Garden of the White House.

Sunday, January 27, 2019 1:00 am

Trump stories perplex trafficking experts

Aren't seeing women bound, tape over mouth

Katie Mettle | Washington Post

President Donald Trump has a new favorite anecdote, one that fixates on tape.

Specifically, in public remarks at the White House, border and farming conventions, the president has been talking about tape on the mouths of migrant women.

“Women are tied up, they're bound, duct tape put around their faces, around their mouths, in many cases they can't even breathe,” he said Friday in the Rose Garden while discussing a deal to temporarily end the partial government shutdown. “They're put in the backs of cars or vans or trucks.”

On at least 10 occasions this month, the president has argued publicly for his proposed wall on the southern border by claiming without evidence that traffickers tie up and silence women with tape before illegally driving them through the desert from Mexico to the United States in the backs of cars and windowless vans.

In Trump's telling, the adhesive is sometimes blue tape. Other times it is electrical tape or duct tape.

In some instances, the descriptions are more salacious and graphic. “Human trafficking – grabbing women, in particular – and children, but women – taping them up, wrapping tape around their mouths so they can't shout or scream, tying up their hands behind their back and even their legs and putting them in a back seat of a car or a van - three, four, five, six, seven at a time,” the president said in the Cabinet Room on Jan. 11.

With an eerie specificity, Trump has characterized these acts as commonplace.

Yet human-trafficking experts and advocates for immigrant women have said they are perplexed by this increasingly repeated story in Trump's repertoire – and are at a loss for where he got his information. It was not from them, they say; in fact, they have no idea what he is talking about.

“I think his statements are completely divorced from reality,” said Ashley Huebner, associate director of legal services at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “That's not a fact pattern that we see.”

In interviews with the Washington Post, nine aid workers and academics who have worked on the border or have knowledge of trafficking there said the president's tape anecdote did not mirror what they have seen or heard. A separate story reported in the Toronto Star cited several additional experts who said Trump's lurid narrative does not align with their known reality.

“I have no idea the roots of it,” said Edna Yang, assistant executive director of American Gateways, a Texas-based immigration legal services and advocacy nonprofit. “I haven't seen a case like that.”

“I've never had that,” said Anne Chandler, executive director of the Houston office of the Tahirih Justice Center, who said she has been dealing with human trafficking 20 years and recently met with people in Tijuana, traveling with a migrant caravan.

“His representation of how traffickers get their victims into the country just isn't what we're seeing,” said Evangeline Chan, director of the Immigration Law Project at Safe Horizon, a leading victim assistance organization. “It is very, very different.”

“I'm not really sure where his information is coming from,” said Leah Chavla, a policy adviser with the Women's Refugee Commission.

It's possible

No prominent news reports have detailed a case that matches the president's description.

But those who spoke with the Post did not rule out the possibility that there are female trafficking victims near the border who have been bound or gagged. They were also careful to make clear that they could not speak for what others, such as law enforcement officials, may have told the president.

“Could it happen? Sure, it could,” Yang said.

But the women she has represented have never talked about being tied up with tape, she said.

“It's clear that he just doesn't have an understanding of what happens at the border,” Yang said. “I think that all President Trump is doing is pushing a wall. A wall is not going to stop individuals fleeing to the United States when home conditions are terrible.”

The National Border Patrol Council, the union representing Border Patrol agents, did not respond to multiple inquiries about whether any of its members had witnessed a scenario matching the president's description.

Top officials from the union met with Trump at the White House on Jan. 3 to discuss border security; the president began using the taped-mouths anecdote the following day.

Lured into US

Migrant women do face great dangers while traveling to the U.S. border through Mexico. Some are fleeing domestic violence, forced marriage, sexual exploitation or sex trafficking in their home countries. One Amnesty International estimate claimed 60 percent of migrant women and girls are raped on their journey. Experts say women and girls take birth control before traveling north, in anticipation of the sexual violence they may encounter.

When women, children and men are trafficked into the country, experts say it does not happen – at least not regularly – in the way Trump has been describing. Often, the migrants are willingly led on foot to illegally cross the border or legally enter with a visa at a port with the promise of a job when they arrive.

“We have had individuals lured through recruiters and smugglers, not realizing that the job that waits for them is trafficking,” said Chandler of the Tahirih Justice Center. “On the journey, at the U.S.-Mexico border, they are completely unaware that they're walking into a trafficking situation.”

It is possible that migrant women have been bound and gagged at stash houses on either side of the border, locations where people are taken and held for ransom and at times sexually exploited, said Elaine Carey, a dean at Purdue University Northwest who has studied trafficking at the border.

Trump appears to have introduced the anecdote Jan. 4 while speaking to reporters in the Rose Garden, after a meeting with congressional leadership on border security. That was also around the time the president began describing the situation at the border as a humanitarian crisis.

In the Rose Garden, Trump said he told meeting attendees that “one of the things that happens there is human traffickers – maybe that's the worst of all – where you'll have traffickers having three and four women with tape on their mouths and tied up, sitting in the back of a van or a car.”