Why was a study on trafficking in Indian Country canceled?

After the Trump administration transition, the Department of Justice killed a critical needs assessment initiative.


In late 2017, someone online offered 25-year-old Jehan a maid-service job in a town six hours from her home outside Gallup, New Mexico. She was skeptical. She’d have to leave her two children behind temporarily, but she needed the income, so she and her sister Marissa, both Navajo Nation citizens, drove to a town near the New Mexico-Texas border. (Both sisters’ names have been changed to protect their identities.)

Upon their arrival, the sisters were kidnapped and physically abused, and coerced by threats against their family. For months, they were forced into sexual acts and labor, with their earnings funneled to their traffickers. After three months, Marissa escaped on a bus back to Gallup.

Their relatives informed police that Marissa had returned, but that Jehan was still missing. According to the family, though, no follow-up occurred; Jehan’s status as a missing person remained unchanged. County police did not return requests for comment. The family only recently learned to call what had happened to their daughters “trafficking.” And as far as state, regional and national data are concerned, both sisters remain uncounted as Native victims of human trafficking.

Stories like Jehan and Marissa’s are not uncommon. According to advocates, human trafficking of Indigenous people is a quiet crisis because national and regional data on the issue are limited to non-existent. To tackle the problem, in 2016 the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) — the research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice — awarded funding to study sex trafficking in Indigenous communities. Advocates say this move would have provided a pivotal first step in addressing the issue by conducting a national needs assessment. However, in early 2017, in the midst of the Trump administration transition, the study was killed. According to lead researchers, the National Institute of Justice cited “administration issues” for the scuttling of the report. Upon requests for more information, the NIJ did not elaborate further.

“This was to be the first study of its kind, and with very little explanation, it was gone,” said Meredith Dank, a research professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the study’s principal investigator. The project was set to be the only federally funded research to examine trafficking in Native communities nationally, and was considered especially vital because neither national advocacy groups nor federal agencies have made progress in tracking tribal citizens the way they track other victims of other ethnicities.

Kimberly Martinez carries a cross wrapped with a red sash along Historic Route 66 in Gallup, New Mexico, in honor of missing and murdered Indigenous people.
Cayla Nimmo

In late 2016, the National Institute of Justice initially awarded the research project, Sex Trafficking in Indian Country, over $278,000 to assess the needs of tribes and coalitions to combat trafficking. In March 2017, during the transition in administrations, an officer informed Dank’s research team they could start work. But in April, the NIJ abruptly asked that all work cease, claiming that the grant was being pulled due to irreconcilable administration issues. (In response to inquiries from High Country News, the agency said it was unable to produce a statement, citing limited staff due to the government shutdown.)

At the time, new administration and congressional research priorities were not yet set. However, former NIJ-affiliated researchers not involved with the trafficking study say that its elimination fits a wider pattern of current leadership shifting its focus away from researching violent crime committed against minority groups. During the Trump era, NIJ programs such as the W.E.B. Du Bois Fellowship have moved away from researching crimes against minority communities, instead focusing on immigration enforcement and protecting law enforcement personnel.

The National Institute of Justice is the lead federal agency when it comes to research and evaluation of crime and justice issues, including trafficking, and is responsible for some of the most frequently cited research on violence against Native women. But the agency’s priorities are set by Congress and each new administration, and annual calls for research proposals change with the political tides as the NIJ director, a presidential appointee, makes final funding decisions.

Tribal coalitions throughout the country, representing a network of over 80 tribes, had signed on to participate in the study, which would have helped illuminate the convoluted process by which cases are currently identified, investigated and prosecuted. The only previous study of comparable ambition was conducted in 2009 and focused on trafficking of Indigenous people in Minnesota.

In both 2017 and 2018, the NIJ awarded over $2 million dollars for trafficking research projects across the U.S. Only one study focused on Indigenous women, a $103,662 grant to evaluate the services of a trafficking recovery program in South Dakota

Families of missing and murdered Indigenous people hold hands for a prayer at the start of an awareness drive in Gallup, New Mexico. Cars decorated with fliers of missing or murdered Navajos and Pueblos drove through town in a procession to demonstrate the scope of the issue.
Cayla Nimmo

In Indigenous communities, vulnerable populations — especially runaway youth, homeless peoples and two-spirit queer individuals — are most likely to fall into trafficking schemes. Some of the scenarios are hard to comprehend, or even detect. “We’re seeing trafficking of family members, where cousins and parents are the traffickers,” said Deleana Otherbull, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women. “The crisis is intensifying, and we don’t fully understand the magnitude of what’s happening.”

Social workers and tribal representatives working across the West agree. They often rattle off figures from The Office on Violence Against Women or the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, noting that one out of three Native women is stalked, abused or raped every year, to shed light on the edges of trafficking. “Oftentimes women are trafficked and would never know to call it trafficking,” said Otherbull.

Otherbull’s organization signed on to support the cancelled research by incorporating the 24 tribes and pueblos it is already working with. Other tribes and agencies include First Nations Women’s Alliance, Strong Hearted Native Women’s Coalition, Native Alliance Against Violence, and others across the nation. 

“We did it because there is no national data to support what we are seeing,” said Otherbull. “We had a case of a mother that was selling her 12-year-old for both drugs and money for two years. We were really excited about the prospect of this study, to say the least.”

Localized efforts aimed at confronting the dearth of data on trafficking are often stymied by lack of funding. “We find that we need to take a mainstream definition of trafficking and find out how it plays out in unique situations in Navajo communities,” said Amber Kanazbah Crotty, the Navajo Nation delegate who co-sponsored the first Navajo legislation to combat trafficking. “We need the research and assessments, or else we erase the experience of survivors.” 

In some ways, issues with addressing trafficking in Native communities are mirrored by the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis: Uncollected data mean that generations of cases slip through the tangle of jurisdictional maps, while local and national law enforcement agencies sidestep the issue.

Recent legislative inaction has had repercussions across crises. The Violence Against Women Act expired due to the partial government shutdown, and Texas Democrat Rep. Sheila Jackson’s reauthorization bill, which would have expanded tribal jurisdiction to include trafficking, stalled along with it. Similarly, Savanna’s Act, a bill that would require the Department of Justice to keep a nationwide database of missing and murdered Native women, will be reintroduced in the House and Senate after being delayed by Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte in December. 

Former Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez, and former President Russell Begaye, seated, sign a resolution to establish human trafficking on tribal land as a criminal offense. Around them are Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, Police Chief Phillip Francisco and Director of Public Safety Jesse Delmar.
Courtesy of the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President

The potential for trafficking research on a national scale rests in large part with the National Institute of Justice and the studies it chooses to fund. Until a needs assessment for human trafficking in Indian Country takes place, researchers say the narratives from within Native communities, and the threads between them, will remain largely impenetrable for policymakers.

“The extent to which Native people have been trafficked, and subsequently criminalized as a result of the experience of trafficking, is vastly underestimated,” said Melina Healey, an assistant professor of law at NYU who drafted the Fort Peck Tribes’ anti-trafficking law and created a legal and social services program for Native survivors of trafficking. 

“Native survivors are not properly recognized in the government systems with which they interact. The federal government has not kept an accounting of trafficking investigations or prosecutions involving Native victims, though it does so for all other victim races,” said Healey.  “Many survivors are misidentified by law enforcement, social services and prisons as Hispanic, black or white.

“There simply aren’t enough studies on it. And if we don’t do the needs assessments and start counting those trafficked, it allows us to ignore them.”

In New Mexico, Jehan remains listed as a missing person, but no leads have come in for her case. Jehan’s cousin said they receive very few updates from law enforcement, even after the family told them that trafficking may be a factor.

“I don’t think anyone is looking into it anymore.”

Note: This article has been updated to clarify sourcing on the initial reasoning for the cancellation of the National Institute of Justice human trafficking study.

Nick Pachelli writes about crime, policy, and human rights from New York and New Mexico.

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