“We live in a very different world,” said Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta on Wednesday, when asked whether he would make the same agreement with accused child sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein today as he did 11 years ago. In 2008, Acosta, then a U.S. attorney in Miami, signed off on a sweetheart non-prosecution deal with Epstein, the superrich money manager accused of sexually abusing and exploiting dozens of underage girls. As reports by the Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown over the last year made clear, the current labor secretary played a major role in letting a serial predator walk free, with barely a slap on the wrist.
Acosta gave the Wednesday press conference in an effort to quiet mounting calls for his resignation following Epstein’s arrest in New York on sex trafficking charges last week. Acosta made no gesture of apology to Epstein’s many victims, but claimed that the extremely lenient treatment afforded to the rich and powerful figure was a reflection of justice in the pre-#MeToo era. “Today’s world treats victims very, very differently,” said Acosta, who did not consult Epstein’s victims before signing off on the 2008 deal, a violation of a federal law governing plea deals.
Acosta’s attempted defense — that it was a different time — is galling on many levels.
Even in Acosta’s “very different world” of a decade ago, the leniency accorded Epstein was uncommon. The deal Epstein got was even an aberration among the other sex trafficking cases Acosta’s own office handled. One man was sentenced in 2007 to 30 years in prison for trafficking a minor; two other men that year received prison sentences, and unlike in Epstein’s case, “neither of the cases involved dozens of victims,” CNN reported.
The labor secretary’s attempted defense — that it was a different time — is galling on many levels. For one, despite the notable gains made for victims and survivors of sexual violence and abuse in the last decade, rape and sexual assault remain dramatically underreported and mishandled by the criminal justice system. The long overdue felling of a number of powerful media figures through #MeToo revelations has not put an end to impunity enjoyed by powerful predators, nor the shaming and silencing endured by their victims. Donald Trump is in the White House, after all, and Brett Kavanaugh sits on the Supreme Court.
For Acosta himself to suggest that times have changed for sexual violence victims is particularly vile because the Department of Labor, under his watch, has spent the last year undoing already scant protections for some of the most vulnerable victims of sex trafficking, as well as the U.S.’s flawed anti-trafficking policies.
Through his Labor Department’s policies, Acosta has continued to ensure that those vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation are made more vulnerable still.
The extensive perpetuation of Epstein and his friends’ crimes was made possible by virtue of the vast power differential between the perpetrators and their victims. Through his Labor Department’s policies, Acosta has continued to ensure that those vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation are made more vulnerable still.
Earlier this year, Acosta proposed that the Labor Department cut 80 percent of the funding to a program dedicated to combating human trafficking, forced labor, and child labor. The cuts, proposed for the 2020 fiscal year, would slash the budget of the International Labor Affairs Bureau, which prepares reports on child labor and trafficking, but also provides funding to nongovernmental groups in foreign countries working toward nipping child labor and sex trafficking at the bud. At his Wednesday press conference, when asked about the proposed cuts, Acosta defended them by stating that the money went to grants “for foreign countries.”
At the same time, and perhaps more cruel still, the Department of Labor decided to place a moratorium on special visa certifications offered by the agency to human trafficking and extreme labor-abuse victims. Since 2015, the Department of Labor has directly granted visa certifications, attesting to a victim’s allegations and their willingness to comply with law enforcement cases against their traffickers and abusive employers.
As of July 1, victims will have to appeal to a separate criminal law enforcement agency, like the FBI, to validate their claims before the Labor Department will agree to the certification. Given federal and state law enforcement’s tendency to treat sex trafficking victims, as well as consensual sex workers, as criminals themselves, the suggestion that these agencies are best equipped to verify victims’ claims is troubling. (In discussions of trafficking, it’s always worth noting the purported prosecution of sex traffickers has, time and time again, been used to ensnare consensual sex workers and their communities, rendering these workers ever more vulnerable to violence and trafficking.)
Furthermore, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services last year began deporting individuals who have been denied trafficking visas. This, together with the Labor Department’s new policy, risks a chilling effect on those undocumented immigrants who would speak out against their traffickers.
“Don’t we want criminal prosecutors to be consulted whenever someone says that they are a victim of trafficking?” Acosta replied on Wednesday, when pressed on his department’s new, harsher visa policy. His words betrayed, once again, a profound disregard for the lives of victims. When someone says they are a victim of trafficking, the most important first step should be to provide that person the means and the security to escape their situation. Exposure to higher risks of deportation and criminalization, as the new Department of Labor policy ensures, are not the responses trafficking victims need.
If Acosta has proven himself consistent between today and his “very different world” of 11 years ago, it is in his disregard for trafficking and abuse victims.