Cabán Offers Community-Based Solutions to Protect Immigrant Communities of Color
Tiffany Cabán has been leading the conversation in the District Attorney race in Queens by pushing the line on criminal justice reform, forcing her opponents to take a more progressive stance on issues ranging from ending cash bail and mass incarceration, to decriminalizing low-level drug possession and sex work. She does so with a deep commitment to racial and economic justice, alongside endorsers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar, to protect immigrant communities of color disproportionately targeted by law enforcement for crimes of poverty.
Cabán’s platform on sex work has been picked on by the Daily News and the Post, two newspapers that support her opponent, Gregory Lasak. Both publications released editorials last week to scare Cabán’s supporters away by painting a terrifying picture of a future borough overrun by prostitution. Both editorials ignore the fact that decriminalization is widely supported by local organizers, service providers, and attorneys with decades of expertise, and cite only those who profit from the ongoing criminalization of prostitution.
These fear-mongering tactics mischaracterize the goals of decriminalization, which include: protecting those who trade sex from violence by customers and police, and fighting trafficking by giving sex workers a means to organize against labor exploitation by management. In no way does decriminalizing sex work mean decriminalizing violence or trafficking; in fact, decriminalization strengthens our movement against precarious working conditions by removing the stigma and punishment that often comes with reporting.
In New Zealand, where sex work was fully decriminalized in 2003, the sex industry did not grow in size, but 90% of workers reported better safety and health in their work conditions. Decriminalization is not the same as legalization — it does not confer legal status on some workers while denying it to others. The decriminalization we want to see in NYC centers the needs of migrant workers, and is led by a coalition of groups who have decades of direct service, organizing, and personal experience with the sex trade. We understand decriminalization, not as the only solution, but as critical to an approach that combats violence and exploitation in our community, alongside investments in resources such as housing and healthcare.
The Post and Daily News editorials fail to address the harmful ways in which current laws aimed to stop human trafficking disproportionately harm the most marginalized people in sex trades: black, Latinx, and trans sex workers, as well as migrant members of our Asian community. In Queens, Asian migrants have been disproportionately targeted in police raids, including one in November 2017 that resulted in the death of Flushing massage parlor worker, Yang Song, who had reported being assaulted at gunpoint by someone who she believed to be a cop, one week before her workplace was raided by the NYPD. Assemblywoman Yuh-line Niou says that she has met with case after case of constituents who had been brutally assaulted by clients, but were afraid to report to police or pursue justice, for fear of being charged with prostitution and getting entangled with immigration.
Opponents of Cabán also charge that decriminalizing clients will further exacerbate the growth of the sex industry in Queens. However, research has demonstrated that criminalizing clients harms sex workers by forcing them to work in more dangerous and isolated locations. Furthermore, in the U.S., the majority of sentencing to “Johns Schools” for those arrested for solicitation — not for violence nor trafficking — are of immigrant men and people of color. The criminalization of clients is much like other low-level crimes, where people of color are disproportionately targeted for low-level offenses.
Given the structural racism endemic to our criminal legal system, what is the Queens that we want to move towards? Cabán stands for a larger vision of decarceration and centering community solutions. Sex work policy is just one part of Cabán’s greater commitment to racial, economic, migrant, and gender justice — and we need a DA that leaves no one behind.
Those who buck at the idea of true, progressive change are hurling harmful myths in an attempt to undermine not just Cabán, but the very communities that the criminal legal system continues to strangle and destroy. As Asian American women invested in the intersections of racial, gender, and migrant justice, and who work in and/or have deep personal ties to Queens, we demand an end to the ongoing use of migrant sex workers as props of fearmongering to achieve political goals.
Aya Tasaki is a queer immigrant and Manager for Policy and Advocacy at Womankind, serving survivors of gender-based violence.
Elena Shih is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at Brown University, and directs a human trafficking research cluster through Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.
Kate Zen is a co-founder and organizer for Red Canary Song, with a background in domestic worker and street vendor organizing, and policy research on women’s informal sector labor.