Penny* was transiting through the US on her way from London to Cancún when “in between mouthfuls of Tupperware salad”, a border agent beckoned her aside. “I don’t think my heart rate has ever been so elevated in my entire life,” she told Novara Media.
Instead of being waved through the border as she had expected, Penny had her passport taken away and was diverted to a “grim” holding room for “secondary questioning” under “oppressive lighting”.
Before the incident in February 2022, Penny didn’t know that the US border force had placed her on a watchlist – simply for doing sex work.
Under current laws, any person US border agents suspect has sold sex in the last ten years can be denied a visa, refused entry, detained, deported and banned from the US for five to ten years.
Sex workers say these laws have a “traumatising” impact. Powerful surveillance technologies are making things worse.
The inconsistently-applied laws are vague, referring to “prostitution and commercialised vice” and “crimes involving moral turpitude”. As with all immigration enforcement, racialised and transgender workers face increased risks.
According to law professor Pooja R Dadhania, prostitution-related immigration laws are “grounded in turn-of-the-twentieth-century morality […] [singling] out female sellers of sex as immoral and as threats to American marriages and families.” The first of these laws specifically targeted Asian women, she wrote in a 2018, “as threats to the moral fabric of the US due to their perceived sexual deviance.”
Penny knew she “was risking it” by travelling to the US, despite her job – which she chose not to disclose on her visa-waiver form. But when her application was accepted, she felt confident she would cross the border without incident.
She never expected that her belongings, including her phone, would be confiscated and searched, while she was interrogated for around an hour. The interrogator, who paced back and forth, asked certain questions on repeat, as another border agent transcribed.
“She kept being like: ‘Do you have sex for money?’ ‘Do you have sex for money?’ ‘Have you ever had sex for money?’” Penny told Novara Media. At one point she was frisked, with her hands up against the wall. “The presiding feeling was just fear,” she said.
Sex workers report being asked detailed questions about their personal life and work, and being subject to intrusive, offensive and harmful treatment.
According to Canadian sex worker-justice organisation Maggie’s, secondary questioning lasts an average of 9-12 hours, and usually happens in a cold room. “Questioning is meant to make you feel uncomfortable, so that you answer questions quickly,” the group says in online guidance aimed at helping sex workers safely cross the border.
“You’ll be made to feel like if you just answer all their questions you’ll be allowed into the country,” the guidance continues. “This is not true”. In fact, border agents – who often pretend to know everything already – are “looking to gather more information about you and about your coworkers,” Maggie’s said. Detainees are asked to sign an affidavit or confession document, and everything they say remains on file, permanently. Those stopped aren’t entitled to a lawyer.
Penny said her allocated border agent toyed with her, making it clear she had the power to decide what happened next. Fortunately, since she was only transiting through the US, she was eventually permitted to continue her journey and escorted by a police officer on to a departing flight.
Exactly how the US compiles its immigration watchlists is unclear. “Workers are currently being stopped without any sort of pattern,” said Lorelei, a United Sex Workers (USW) trade union member, originally from the US.
Information-sharing is a key strategy for sex workers trying to safely cross the border – but as US immigration enforcement’s methods are largely unknown, evading detection can never be guaranteed.
Based on stories shared with the union, Lorelei said workers believe the border force uses “facial recognition surveillance technology and more general background checks”. Some speculate that sex work advertising websites might share workers’ personal data with the state, while others believe the state has ways of accessing this data without websites’ permission.
Iona, a sex worker based in Scotland, made it through the US border without issue after following the advice of advocacy groups to increase her chances of avoiding detection. But knowing she might be stopped made travelling to meet her girlfriend’s family “stressful” nonetheless.
“No one knows why some people are stopped and others aren’t,” said Iona, adding that she had heard of people being stopped years after they had stopped working and removed their online profiles.
Iona said that despite being able to cross the border, she is unlikely to travel to the US again. “I don’t want to miss out on sharing [my girlfriend’s] family events, but at the moment it feels like too much of a risk,” she said.
What sex workers face at the US border is “very negative, expensive and disruptive”, said Lorelei. “Frankly [it’s] traumatising, especially for those who’ve had negative experiences with the police in the past, or those who have gone through painful migration pathways.” More broadly, they said, the treatment of sex workers travelling to the US “reflects sex workers as perceived as second-class citizens [and] inherently criminal.”
“The rights of sex workers in the US are still absolutely below standard for what we should hold for workers,” they added. “Why are sanctions being put on sex workers […] and yet war criminals, oligarchs and other not-so-savoury figures do not face these same sanctions?”
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.