The racialized policing of human trafficking in RI

Elena Shih is the Manning Assistant Professor of American Studies at Brown University, where she leads a human trafficking research cluster through the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.

Last Friday’s arrest of 11 workers affiliated with three Asian massage spas in Cranston is the latest in the decades-long policing spree against Asian workers in the name of combating human trafficking.

The arrests charged workers with violations of a 2016 law that established a new category of “body work,” requiring a distinct license from that of a massage therapist. The law has disproportionately targeted Asian massage businesses in particular, following “Operation Rub Down,” which was initiated in 2003 due to fears of human trafficking. However, human trafficking has rarely been proven in these cases.

In December 2019, during the last such raid before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pawtucket Police Department and Department of Homeland Security raided three Asian massage businesses in Pawtucket and arrested 19 people. Most of the Asian massage workers arrested were charged with not having a massage therapy license; only three employees were charged with prostitution. After their arrest, workers’ charges were dropped, and only the business owners were indicted. However, the experience of raid, arrest, and preliminary charges have a grave impact on the social, emotional, and financial well-being of migrant workers.

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