Hinckley Forum on Migrant Crossings and Human Trafficking Sparks Heated Debate


Courtesy of Dr. Annie Isabel Fukushima.

By Christina Giardinelli


A Hinckley Institute forum held at the University of Utah on Nov. 5 became heated after an audience member took the microphone and initially refused to return it to the moderator. The U’s Hinckley Institute hosts forums throughout the year as part of a mission to teach students respect for practical politics and the principle of citizen involvement in government.

Hinckley guest speaker, Dr. Annie Fukushima, assistant professor in Ethnic Studies, spoke about migrant crossings and witnessing human trafficking in the U.S. The lecture focused on the Latin American context and looked at the topic through a decolonial and transnational feminist lens, asking the question, “Who is seen as trafficked?”

Dr. Fukushima broached this topic by examining specific events and circumstances surrounding the 2010 case of U.S. v Dann. Dann, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Peru, was convicted of trafficking the victim — whom Fukushima referred to as Liliana — into her house as a domestic employee after promising her a job while visiting her home country. Liliana had previously worked for Dann’s sister in Peru.

Dr. Fukushima called the case a “hallmark” case in California because it fulfilled the legal description of human trafficking. She remarked how, despite the fact that Liliana was in many ways “the perfect victim” from a legal perspective, it took her crying for the prosecutor to view her as such. Dr. Fukushima spoke on the notion of trafficking often seen as a legal battle against the traffickers bringing immigrants into the country rather than a battle for justice for the victims.

The lecture centered around the identity of trafficked victims and how this is often misconstrued based on the bias notions of the people who witness this victimhood.

The question and answer portion of the forum got heated after the microphone was passed to an audience member who initially refused to yield it back to the moderator and continually interrupted Dr. Fukushima during her response to his question. The man, who identified as Preston, did not provide a last name and left before the Chronicle reporter was able to request comment.

“What is being done in these communities to sway people from coming across illegally so that they can try and engage in the legal process and have recourse and protections as a resident of the country?” was the question, to which Dr. Fukushima provided a response despite the interruptions.

“I appreciate your enthusiasm about your point” stated Dr. Fukushima, explaining that “for migrants that are coming to the United States, the question is why are they leaving their conditions” Dr Fukushima spoke about interviews she had conducted with “her friends from El Salvador, Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala” and stated that her interview had relayed to her the tiring and dangerous conditions that the “few coming in on foot” had experienced, relaying this as a testament to how difficult conditions must be to flee despite the dangers of the voyage.

Preston stated that he worked with a group of veterans who patrolled the Mexico-Arizona border east of the Tohono Indian reservation. He stated that he had witnessed cases of trafficking and violence against women and children. He described an episode where his party had allegedly come across a group of 94 migrants, 60 of which were children he claimed to have been trafficked. After Dr. Fukushima asked him if he was bilingual, he replied that he was not, but that he had personally witnessed what he alleged to be cases of trafficking.

“It’s just not good information, I’m sorry you are missing the point, you don’t really know what is happening. I am an eye witness,” he said.

Licia Duran, a U freshman who was seated next to Preston stated that she felt unsafe due to what she described as aggressive behavior on his behalf. Particularly referring to the gesture of “popping is eyes out” towards another nearby audience member who asked Preston to be quiet during Dr. Fukushima’s response to his question. Duran stated that “it felt very scary, that guy was just being very hostile,” adding that she would have moved but she feared he would act react aggressively if she had.

Molly Wheeler, managing director of community outreach at the Hinckley Institute said, “Typically these forums serve as a venue for discourse and discourse can be uncomfortable or problematic.” She said the Institute does not shy away from discourse — however, they intervene if “things veer more towards the disrespect.” When asked about the safety of the audience, Wheeler responded that “we expect to maintain safety and comfort in this setting at all times for our speakers and our students,” adding that “we never want a student to feel unsafe or unwelcome in our space.”  

When asked about the incident, Fukushima stated that “immigration is always a contested issue in the U.S., it has always been as long as I’ve been doing this work,” adding that debates on migration and refugees are “impacted by our current political climate that has also empowered people to be more visible about their anti-immigrant sentiments and practices.”

With regards to her question on whether or not Preston is bilingual, Fukushima stated that she believes being bilingual is “really important when we say we are working in community,” continuing to say that “[Preston] said he met people, but the question is, did he talk with them? If you are not bilingual then you are not talking with them.”

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