(Yahoo Photo Illustration/AP/Getty)
Ending weeks of bitter partisan bickering — and the longest attorney general confirmation process in three decades — senators voted unanimously this week to pass an anti-human trafficking bill that had gone from bipartisan no-brainer to intractable deadlock with the addition of an anti-abortion provision.
But with a compromise version of the bill out of the Senate’s hands, and Loretta Lynch on her way to becoming the country’s first black female attorney general, those following the recent drama are left with a better sense of the debate surrounding the anti-human trafficking legislation than the issue it was drafted to combat.
Despite the headlines, the term “human trafficking” is still a somewhat daunting and intangible one. It’s a problem most Americans assume is confined to far-off developing countries.
In reality, human trafficking is as real and immediate an issue in the United States as it is throughout the world, implicating Americans of all ages, races and socio-economic statuses, whether they know it or not.
Human trafficking — defined by federal law as forcing, coercing or defrauding a person into labor services or commercial sex acts against his or her will (and, in the case of sex trafficking, if the person is under 18 years old) — doesn’t just lurk in the dark corners of society. Though the majority of cases in the U.S. relate to sex trafficking, the Bureau of Justice Assistance-funded Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) has seen a steady increase since 2005 in the volume of services provided specifically to labor trafficking victims — people who work in legitimate businesses like restaurants, hotels, home-care services, farming and manufacturing.
Accurate human trafficking statistics are nearly impossible to come by, as it is an immensely underreported crime. According to data from the federal Anti-Human Trafficking Task Forces, OVC provided services to 3,221 potential trafficking victims nationwide between January 2003 and June 2010. But calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline suggest the scope of human trafficking in the U.S. has grown considerably since then.
Funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and operated by the nonprofit Polaris Project, the NHTRC hotline receives calls, emails, texts and other communication relating to human trafficking cases and connects potential victims with the local OVC branch nearest them. According to Polaris’ latest report on hotline statistics, the NHTRC received 24,062 “signals” (phone calls, webforms and emails) relating to a total of 5,042 cases of human trafficking in 2014 alone.
Sen. Charles Schumer and other Democratic senators spoke to members of the press last month about the confirmation of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, which was delayed by partisan fighting over an anti-abortion provision in the Senate’s Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Human trafficking is often described as “modern-day slavery,” a concept that Tarah Demant, senior director of the Identity and Discrimination Unit at Amnesty International, says is still difficult for most people to grasp.
“Slavery is happening today in the United States; this isn’t another country’s problem,” Demant told Yahoo News. “People are forced, coerced and tricked into coming to the U.S., and then they are exploited for their labor.”
While forced migration or smuggling are often associated with human trafficking, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center emphasizes that the two problems are not synonymous. Human trafficking does not necessarily involve movement or transportation across state or international lines, nor are its victims solely immigrants or citizens of other countries. As of November 2013, 41 percent of sex trafficking cases reported to the NHTRC involved U.S. citizens as victims, as did 20 percent of labor trafficking cases.
The U.S. citizens most vulnerable to trafficking are children. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, “as many as 300,000 children are at risk for sexual exploitation each year in the United States.” This calculation takes into account the number of children subject to physical or sexual abuse, poverty, homelessness, mental health issues, substance abuse issues, and involvement with the juvenile justice or child welfare systems — as well as other factors that are also associated with falling victim to sex traffickers.
Another risk factor is running away from home.
Based on the reported cases (which account for only a fraction of sex trafficking cases and victims), the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimated that in 2014, 1 in 6 runaways were likely victims of sex trafficking — up from 2013, when the estimated ratio was 1 in 7.
Human trafficking rates are highest in California, Texas, Florida and New York, but labor and sex trafficking cases have been reported in all 50 states.
“What makes it so difficult is that it’s so invisible,” Demant said. “People see it but they don’t know that they’re seeing it.”
People also don’t know that they’re probably enabling it, as most people have benefited from this invisible workforce in some way or another.
Victims of human trafficking are everywhere, from truck stops and street corners to restaurants and home-care services and the festivities surrounding the Super Bowl. For the past several years, police in Super Bowl host cities have been on high alert for what has become a pretty regular spike in sex trafficking and child prostitution around the big event
“If you wear clothing made inside or outside the United States, if you’ve benefited from cheap goods, you have no doubt benefited from slavery,” Demant said.
Slavery may have been abolished with the 13th Amendment in 1865, but human trafficking was not directly addressed by federal law until 2000, with the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (PDF). This law aimed to prevent trafficking, prosecute traffickers and protect the trafficked. Still, advocates like Demant argue that victims of trafficking are often re-victimized by the justice system, seeking assistance only to wind up punished for crimes they were coerced into committing or reported to immigration enforcement.
The legislation passed Wednesday aims to change that.
Introduced by Republican Sen. John Cornyn in November 2013, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act creates more funding for victim services, from health care to legal aid.
“While many people might think human trafficking is only a problem in some faraway place, the fact of the matter is human trafficking occurs right now in all 50 states,” Cornyn told Yahoo News in a statement Thursday. “As the father of two daughters, meeting women in Texas who were trafficked as young girls hit close to home and strengthened my commitment to do whatever possible to end this modern-day slavery.”
But despite overwhelming bipartisan support, as evidenced by Cornyn’s long list of co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, the bill went from smooth sailing to stonewalled with the last-minute addition of the Hyde Amendment.
A provision that bans the use of federal funds for abortions except in cases of rape or incest, the Hyde Amendment has been regularly tacked onto Republican-sponsored legislation since 1976. Language added to the trafficking bill ahead of the Senate vote in March, however, sought to apply the Hyde Amendment restrictions to the newly proposed victims’ services fund bankrolled by fines levied on convicted sex traffickers — essentially expanding the Hyde Amendment to reach beyond taxpayer dollars.
With Lynch’s confirmation vote hanging in the balance, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray — who initially accused Senate Republicans of “trying to pull a fast one” by sneaking the Hyde language into the bill after it was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last year — collaborated with Cornyn on a compromise.
The version of the bill that passed the Senate unanimously Wednesday calls for two different sources of funding for victim services instead of one. The money pooled from sex traffickers will no longer be limited by the Hyde Amendment, though it will be specifically reserved for legal aid, law enforcement and other services not related to health care. Health and medical services will instead be paid for by federal dollars already subject to Hyde restrictions.
Simply put: Neither of the newly created sources of funding for trafficking victims’ services will pay for abortions, as Republicans insisted, but the Democratic side avoided setting a precedent by expanding the scope of the Hyde Amendment.
“I’m pleased that Republicans and Democrats were able to agree on a bipartisan path that supports survivors and doesn’t add any restrictions on women’s health care options,” Murray told Yahoo News in an emailed statement Thursday. “The families and communities we serve rightly expect us to work together to deliver results — and while it certainly shouldn’t have taken this long, I’m very glad we were able to move past the gridlock and dysfunction and get this important legislation passed.”
Disappointed by the partisan fighting over the bill, Demant pointed out that, while the Hyde Amendment is often attached to bills with no apparent connection to reproductive rights or women’s health, the issues of abortion access and human trafficking are hardly unrelated.
“Survivors of trafficking need tons of services, including abortion access,” Demant said, pointing out that victims of sex trafficking, by definition, are people who have been forced into sex. “When you have something like the Hyde Amendment, not only are survivors of human trafficking denied basic rights, they are re-victimized by the people who are supposed to be helping them.”
“On the other hand, I think [this debate] is a great opportunity for people to understand what trafficking means,” she continued. “We can end slavery; all it takes is attention.”