Why spa raids and the marginalization of sex workers must stop

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Many of those working in America’s spas and massage parlors are Asian immigrants, and when we dive into the minutia and complexities of their lives, we find systemic racism compounded by stigmatization and victim-blaming used against these community members to make them seem less worthy of dignity and respect than other immigrants.

Many metropolitan police departments routinely conduct raids on spas and massage parlors. These raids, purported to curb human trafficking, have resulted in the arrests of many Asian immigrants.

Many have been told by spa proprietors that they are already licensed while others were never made aware of licensing requirements.

{mosads}Managing Womankind’s anti-human trafficking initiative, I experience the impact of these raids up close. Some of these immigrants reside in the spa in which they work. When the spa is shut down, they can be rendered both jobless and homeless.


For those who are the sole income provider for their families, they and their families are left destitute. Rarely knowing their rights, they are easily swept up and arrested indiscriminately and they become deportable, regardless of whether or not they are documented immigrants.

The charge in court is “unauthorized practice of a profession.”

This is a felony charge.

And, they are labeled and treated as less worthy of the same rights and dignity as other immigrants. In the era of travel bans and Trump’s crackdown on immigrants, these community members find themselves at heightened risk of being targeted and deported.

As Immigration and Customs Enforcement has thrown down the gauntlet, even some supporters of immigrants are latching onto the “good immigrant” vs. “bad immigrant” narrative in an effort to save the so-called good immigrants.

But it doesn’t truly matter whether they are cleaning houses or working at massage parlors; their safety is compromised and they are left more vulnerable to a potential cycle of exploitation.

Mass arrest is not the answer to ending the exploitation of the mostly Asian immigrants working in spas and massage parlors. 

They need support, and they need to know that our country and our government value the dignity and humanity of all who live here. There are other strategies our policy makers could employ to help these community members.

Choices and resources are imperative in breaking the cycle of any form of exploitation.

Instead of deportation, these workers need a supportive environment and services like know-your-rights workshops, English as a second language classes, economic empowerment training, immigration legal services and other community support.

We should treat these immigrants with compassion and understanding — not punishment. We need a well thought-out strategy that is developed with their input and provides access to real services based on their needs so that they can move forward in their lives.

Let’s make America great by making it safe for women who are pushed into the shadows because of anti-immigrant bias. 

Let’s stop wasting resources on spa and massage parlor raids and, instead, invest in providing the hard-working victims workers of those raids the resources they need to finally end the cycles of poverty and bias that perpetuate human trafficking.

Mary Caparas is the Project Free (Anti-Human Trafficking) Manager at Womankind, a pan-Asian agency on the East Coast that serves both labor and sex trafficked survivors. She is currently the co-chair of the social services committee of the Freedom Network.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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