Trafficking in Rural America

Share this:

Rural Areas Create Vulnerabilities

Rural areas are known for having fewer people and a thick country landscape. While envisioning a rural community, human trafficking may not come to mind for most. However, many factors present vulnerabilities for trafficking survivors in rural communities. Trafficking survivors in rural areas find themselves isolated with little employment opportunities and a lack of services. An additional barrier for trafficking survivors in rural communities is the small population of the area. Because everyone knows everyone in a small town, trafficked people are often stigmatized. People trafficking in rural areas are men and women, minors, especially runaway/homeless youth, Indigenous persons or Alaskan Natives, and/or temporary visa holders. Some other risk factors include prior abuse or neglect, substance use disorders, and prior debt or economic challenges. 

Rural areas pose unique barriers to identification and intervention of human trafficking. Unlike cities with dense populations, there are fewer people who are farther apart to anonymously report human trafficking. Moreover, because of geographic isolation, there is a delayed response by organizations to intervene. Being farther away from other people also makes it hard for survivors to find shelter elsewhere.


Recruitment can take many forms. For sex trafficking, survivors can be trafficked through someone in their family or an intimate partner, and their social circle. Recruiters use methods of control which include demanding high quotas be met, withholding medical treatment, forced substance dependency, physical and/or sexual assault, psychological manipulation, and isolation and monitoring. Common recruitment sites for sex trafficking in rural areas are truck stops and welcome centers. Rural communities often have these locations because of the extensive highways in their areas. Because these locations are isolated, it makes trafficking easier for recruiters. Ultimately, rural areas need more services and outreach to help people become aware of trafficking in their own community.

Recruitment for labor trafficking involves false job advertisements, familial recruitment, and outside recruitment agencies. Some sectors of labor trafficking in rural communities include agriculture, restaurants, domestic work, construction, traveling sales crews, and carnivals and tourism. The methods of control for labor trafficking are similar to sex trafficking. Their perpetrators will use tactics such as debt bondage, isolation or a controlled environment, physical and/or sexual abuse, document confiscation, threats against friends and family, psychological manipulation, and false promises during recruitment. 

Some of the most vulnerable in rural communities are Immigrants who hold H2A agricultural visas or commonly referred to as “guest worker visas.” The structure of this visa program puts these visa holders in danger, as their ability to work and remain in the country is controlled by their employer. In order to pay off recruitment debt, many fear of losing their jobs and being deported if they challenge their employers on unfair or illegal labor practices. As a result, employers take advantage of this and use tactics such as forced labor, visa fraud, wage theft, sexual harassment and gender-based violence to control these workers. Changes to these programs would have a significant impact on human trafficking in rural communities. 

Rural Trafficking in Vermont

An interview with Freedom Network member, Give Way to Freedom, revealed local issues with rural trafficking in Vermont. Edith Klimonski specifically highlighted the role of the opiate crisis in human trafficking in rural Vermont. Edith explained that Vermont has a more significant rate of opioid use per capita than any other state. Poverty and isolation are also significant factors in rural Vermont. These factors, coupled with small cities and towns with little to no resources for trafficking survivors only perpetuates the issue.

Another factor in rural trafficking in Vermont is isolation of farm workers. Although Vermont has made the capability to get a driver’s license available to undocumented folks, they still can feel isolated. The isolation and use of coercion leave immigrants feeling powerless over their situation. Rural areas tend to be under-resourced with a few people proactively checking on farm workers. There is one organization, Migrant Justice Center, that goes from farm to farm and checks on workers. Additionally, Edith described another program in Vermont, the Milk with Dignity Program. Premier companies such as Ben & Jerry’s have used this program to create worker protections for farm workers. They only contract with farms that have signed on to the Milk with Dignity program. When the farm signs on, they are entering a legally binding contract to comply with the program’s code of conduct labor standards. Both programs can improve the lives of farm workers. This program was designed by the renowned Fair Food Program in Immokalee, Florida. Human Trafficking can happen in any geographic location. However, more populated areas are more equipped to identify and intervene. Trafficking in rural areas poses unique challenges for survivors and service providers. It is imperative that this issue be addressed and more awareness is implemented so that survivors can receive the services they need. It is also essential that the US government, advocates, and funders prioritize labor trafficking to bring more awareness to ensure survivors and workers are protected.