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Amtrak Joins the Police State

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According to Homeland Security Today, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has forged “a new partnership” with “the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Amtrak to battle the trafficking of humans.”

DHS will train “over 8,000 frontline transportation employees and Amtrak Police Department officers” on how to recognize and report trafficking indicators and suspected traffickers. Those frontline employees include anyone who comes into regular contact with the public, including ticket sellers. If Wikipedia can be trusted, there are currently about 450 Amtrak police who handle law enforcement and security for the government-owned passenger train system.

Soon, over 8,000 Amtrak employees will overtly or covertly examine passengers for the validity of their identification, their level of stress, how they interact, and their conversations. It is so necessary to treat Amtrak customers as criminal suspects because, according to HS Today, an “estimated 100,000 children are trafficked in the sex trade in the United States each year,” with the average age being 11 to 14, and some being as young as 9. This means that passengers — and especially men — traveling with children will be subject to enhanced scrutiny. Perhaps the trained employees will engage children in conversation or demand a statement of their relationship status with the accompanying adults.

The total police state that operates at airports is spreading to train stations — and beyond. HS Today states that the Department of Transportation “is currently training its more than 55,000 employees to identify and report human trafficking.” Even traveling in a car does not exempt people from being treated as criminal suspects. Last year, Tennessee became the first state to partner with DHS to conduct an exercise in which trucks were randomly inspected, complete with drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs. The exercise was part of the Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response program (VIPR), which has a mandate “to augment the security of any mode of transportation at any location within the United States.”

In theory, people may still be free to exercise their constitutional right against unreasonable searches and refuse to comply. In practice, as happens at airports, those who resist will almost certainly be denied the ability to travel and will perhaps be detained for questioning by the police. Government officials have long argued that such items as a driver’s license are not only mandatory for travel but also state-granted privileges rather than inalienable rights.

 

Examining the 100,000 claim

The sexual exploitation of children is such an explosive and morally offensive matter that rational faculties tend to switch off when it is raised. Precisely the opposite should occur. Otherwise, politicians and bureaucrats can use the issue to manipulate emotions and so grease the implementation of ruinous laws and programs. The very fact that child exploitation is so upsetting makes it all the more important to know the truth about it.

HS Today claims that 100,000 children are forced into the sex trade in America each year. On the DHS website, however, the claim becomes that “hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are trafficked across international borders each year.”

If 100,000 children are trafficked for the sex trade within a nation with such rigid borders and massive police surveillance, wouldn’t the global total be much higher, especially when that total would include men and women as well as people who are trafficked into non-sexual forced labor?

Perhaps the claim is that American children are being trafficked. This would be consistent with targeting Amtrak customers who rarely cross a border and do so only into Canada.

According to 2010 census data, the number of children (age 0–17) in the United States was 74.2 million (PDF). Assuming an even distribution within the 18 age groups from 0–17, there would be roughly 4.12 million children in each group. Accepting the DHS claim that the youngest child trafficked was nine years old — and, so, eliminating younger groups — there would be 37 million vulnerable children. If 100,000 children are trafficked each year, then 1 in every 370 children was a sex-trade victim in 2010. How many people personally know of a child who has been trafficked? How many are acquainted with anyone who personally knows of a trafficked child?

Perhaps the claim includes children who are “imported” en masse from other countries. The 2010 DHS pamphlet entitled “Human Trafficking Indicators” lists its “Anti-Trafficking Successes” (rescued victims), all of whom are foreign-born (PDF). Only 85 rescued victims are listed, and the descriptions are anonymous, which precludes verification. Of those listed, 21 are clearly identified as children, 20 of whom were forced to work in hair-braiding salons, while 1 was prostituted. An additional 15 “women and girls” were reported forced into sex work. Even generously assuming that 13 of the 15 “women and girls” were girls, the total of foreign children rescued from sex work was 14. The list of successes is almost certainly not complete, but if DHS had examples of more massive raids on child sex dens, I presume they would present them.

In short, the statistic of 100,000 children a year seems wildly implausible, unless you expand the definition of trafficking. The DHS Blue Campaign — its anti-trafficking program — does precisely that; it expands the definition to include every minor involved in commercial sex as “a victim of human trafficking, even without force, fraud or coercion.” Thus, the 8,000 Amtrak employees will have reason to scrutinize children and teenagers even if they are clearly not forced to be with the adults accompanying them.

 

Why Amtrak?

The benefit to Amtrak is clear: money.

Amtrak received almost $1.5 billion in federal funds last year, and it still lost money. The Boston Globe (Sept. 10) reports,

Even with a record 30 million passengers boarding its trains last year, Amtrak operated at a net loss of more than $450 million. The government pitched in $562 million to keep Amtrak in the black. And that’s just on the operations side, where Amtrak says it covers about 85 percent of its own costs through ticket fares and fees. When it comes to capital costs, like keeping train tracks up, the government foots almost the entire bill, costing taxpayers about $650 million in 2011.

Amtrak’s losses are so large and persistent that one of Mitt Romney’s campaign promises is to privatize it. By becoming an integral part of national security, however, Amtrak can secure both funding and survival.

The benefit to DHS is clear: more control of the vital functions of society. Moreover, the control can be imposed while skirting the issue of constitutional rights. Passengers who wish to board are simply deemed to have rendered consent, because scrutiny is now a condition of travel.

What is unclear is how the move will deter trafficking. Other than crossing the border into Canada, Amtrak has no international junctures at which to prevent the importation of victims. Moreover, customs and immigration officials already question and demand identification from every passenger traveling into or out of Canada.

Nor does it seem plausible that traffickers would use Amtrak as a method of transportation. Passengers have to show identification when they buy tickets; criminals generally seek anonymity. Moreover, Amtrak is not inexpensive. As of today, a one-way ticket from Chicago to New York ranges from $122 to $190 before taxes. If a trafficker values profit — which seems to be a given — then Amtrak is not going to be the preferred pipeline. Thus, the inconvenience and insult to passengers will be great, but the genuine rescues that result will be rare or nonexistent..

 

Conclusion

The partnership between DHS and Amtrak allows the government one more avenue of surveillance; it chips one more bit of freedom away from the average person, who is just trying to make it through the day. In the future, when a man boards a train in the company of a minor or a woman, or when he merely looks suspicious, he may be asked where he is going, for how long, and why. What is his relationship to the companion? What is his profession? The companion may be asked whether she feels free to step away from the other passenger. She may be questioned separately and her story compared to the other passenger’s. And heaven help anyone who looks sad, enraged, or stressed out.

Another channel of convenience and freedom is being lost to national-security agents who seem determined to turn all of America into an airport screening zone.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).