Fight against trafficking gains broad House support

Clerk.house.gov photo.
WASHINGTON (BP) -- A deeply divided U.S. House of Representatives has found at least one issue it can agree on across the board -- combating human trafficking.

The House has approved more than a dozen anti-trafficking bills in recent weeks, with only three votes total against the proposals. Leading a trio of three measures passed July 12 was the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Act, comprehensive legislation authorizing more than $500 million for four years to combat sex and labor trafficking.

The Senate must approve the bills before they can be signed by President Trump.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission hailed passage of the measures and their bipartisan support.

"We are grateful for the nearly unanimous, bipartisan support" that the anti-trafficking bills received in the House, said Travis Wussow, the ERLC's vice president for public policy and general counsel. "Finding unity on eradicating human trafficking is worth celebrating."

Wussow commended the sponsors and cosponsors of the three bills passed July 12.

"We applaud these legislators and many cosponsors for their leadership in this critical fight," Wussow told Baptist Press in written comments. "These bills provide a multi-front effort to finally bring an end to human trafficking. Now the task moves to the Senate, where we will work for quick, bipartisan passage as well."

Trump described House passage of the three pieces of legislation as "important steps forward" for "ending the horrific practice of human trafficking." He said in a written statement, "I am hopeful that the Senate will take up and pass these three bills as soon as possible and I look forward to my continued work with the Congress on this important issue."

Human trafficking is a global affliction that affects 20 to 45 million victims, according to estimates from different organizations. More than 70 percent are women or girls, according to a 2016 United Nations report. The leading types of slavery are sexual exploitation and forced labor. Traffickers earn a total profit of about $150 billion annually worldwide, the International Labor Organization reported in 2014.

The United States is not immune to the problem. An estimated 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the country each year, according to a State Department report on the subject in 2004. That did not include victims who are trafficked within the United States.

The bill named after Douglass, the former slave who became a leading abolitionist, includes the following authorizations for the next four years:

-- $180 million to the State Department to, among other uses, train law enforcement in the U.S. and overseas to combat trafficking.

-- $161 million to the Justice Department to prosecute and convict traffickers and to support state and local law enforcement in the battle against trafficking.

-- $94 million to the Department of Health and Human Service to provide American and foreign victims in this country with housing and other services.

-- $50 million to the president to help other countries eliminate trafficking and aid foreign victims.

-- $44 million to the Department of Homeland Security to investigate and extinguish international trafficking rings and to investigate Americans who abuse victims overseas.

The legislation's sponsor -- Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., author of the original anti-trafficking law in 2000 -- described the proposal as "a whole-of-government approach, designed to strengthen, expand and create new initiatives to protect victims, prosecute traffickers and prevent this cruelty and exploitation from happening in the first place."

The other two measures approved by the House were the Empowering Law Enforcement to Fight Sex Trafficking Demand Act, sponsored by Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., and the Enhancing Detection of Human Trafficking Act, sponsored by Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich.

Hartzler's bill would expand the Justice Department's ability to help local law enforcement authorities to arrest men who buy sex from victims. Walberg's proposal would support training of Labor Department employees to identify and aid trafficking victims.

House action on the three bills came barely two weeks after the State Department issued its annual Trafficking in Persons report.

The report showed only 14,897 trafficking prosecutions took place globally in 2016, with 9,071 convictions. The Justice Department, however, increased its convictions from 297 traffickers in 2015 to 439 in 2016, according to the report.

The State Department placed 23 countries on Tier 3, the lowest ranking. Tier 3 is for governments that "do not fully meet the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so. The Tier 3 countries are China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Venezuela.

In the Southern Baptist Convention's most recent resolution opposing human trafficking, messengers to the 2013 meeting approved a proposal that included a call for Southern Baptists to support government policies to fight trafficking.

Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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