Is human trafficking happening in the United States?

Is human trafficking happening in the United States?
June 1, 23

Allison M. Smith has undergraduate and graduate degrees in Human Development and Social Policy from the University of Utah, where she taught for many years. She has had an extensive career in advocacy for children and families, working in various capacities at both state and local levels with individuals affected by human trafficking, substance use disorders, and the various challenges that accompany them. Allison joined Operation Underground Railroad’s (O.U.R.) Aftercare Team in 2021 and is currently Director of Education for O.U.R., working to ensure that education, training, and technical assistance are provided to all people throughout the world. Allison is a member of the Utah Opioid Task Force and a Board Member of the National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children.

Is human trafficking happening in the United States?

Human trafficking is happening all over the world and the United States is no exception. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, human trafficking has been reported in all 50 states (NCMEC, 2022).

The National Human Trafficking Hotline, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and operated by Polaris, a Washington, D.C.-based nongovernmental organization, reported that in 2021, 10,359 situations of human trafficking were reported to the hotline, involving 16,554 individual victims. As shocking as these numbers are, these reports are very likely only a fraction of the actual problem (Polaris, 2021). The following map shows the prevalence of human trafficking reports in the United States, with the red and orange indicating areas with the most reports.

Here is more information from Polaris:

Top forms of recruitment into “the life” of trafficking in the United States:

  • Family member/caregiver 33%

  • Intimate partner 28%

  • Employer 22%

Top recruitment locations:

  • Internet - Dating Site/Facebook 23%

  • Street/neighborhood 11% (Polaris, 2021).

There are a multitude of risk factors/vulnerabilities related to human trafficking. In the United States, the top five risk factors/vulnerabilities are:

  • Recent migration/relocation 54%

  • Mental or physical health concern 10%

  • Substance use concern 9%

  • Unstable housing 8%

  • Runaway/homeless youth 7% (Polaris, 2021).

According to UNICEF (2017), human trafficking is the second most profitable illegal industry in the United States, second only to the drug trade. In addition, sex trafficking is the most common type of trafficking in the U.S. In 2021, 72% of trafficking situations were sexual exploitation (Polaris, 2021).

O.U.R. fights human trafficking in the U.S. by supporting law enforcement with needed resources, such as funding for specialized trainings, electronic storage detection (ESD) K9s, and forensic investigations equipment. K9 Emery, an ESD K9 serving in Pennsylvania, is just one of many examples of O.U.R.’s support in the U.S.:

“K9 Emery does a great job during her search warrants and loves being around all people and children. She especially makes children feel very comfortable and relaxed. We have a live victim case involving 2 sisters that were sexually abused by their uncle that has a sentencing phase coming up. Both girls want Emery to be there for his sentencing.” - Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. (2022). Child Sex Trafficking Overview.
Polaris. (2021). Polaris Analysis of 2021 Data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Gould, H. (2017, January 13). What Fuels Human Trafficking. UNICEF in Action.