WASHINGTON — The fight against human trafficking has many ordinary heroes on the ground, working to free women, children and even men from the horrors of forced labor and sexual servitude.
Now, the task of rescuing survivors of trafficking and preventing more victims is poised to receive more comprehensive U.S. support, once Congress passes H.R. 2200, the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act of 2017.
The bill has bipartisan support and both reauthorizes and expands upon the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000. H.R. 2200 passed the House of Representatives July 12, but still awaits final passage through the Senate, in order to get to President Donald Trump’s desk for his signature.
The anti-trafficking legislation authorizes funding for programs revolving around four aspects: preventing trafficking, protecting victims, prosecuting traffickers and their clients, and partnering with organizations active at the local level.
“This very much reflects the priorities of the Catholic Church,” explained Lucy Steinitz, an anti-trafficking specialist at Catholic Relief Services (CRS). The Catholic charity helped develop some of the language in the bill with the support of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, which manages a network of organizations providing comprehensive services through the Trafficking Victims Assistance Program.
Steinitz said the legislation requires that in countries that the State Department has identified as high risk for trafficking, all projects from the U.S. Agency for International Development must involve an anti-trafficking component.
“That is critical for us, because it allows us to infuse a focus on trafficking in a great deal of what we do,” Steinitz said.
The bill authorizes new opportunities to fund model local programs. Steinitz explained CRS has done studies in Ecuador that show domestic violence is a big factor in young people being trafficked.
Effective interventions at home could help young people not become at risk of buying into the “false promise” that anything is better than their domestic crises.
“This legislation could give us an opportunity to do this kind of work and demonstrate it does work,” she said, “so we can have a model that can be put in place elsewhere.”
Patiently Rescuing Victims
CRS is working in India with local organizations, as well as police and judicial officials, to both prevent situations of trafficking and rescue and rehabilitate people in those situations. Vijayalakshmi Arora, who directs CRS programs in India, told the Register that increased U.S. support will “play a critical role and make a significant contribution to addressing the issue.”
Arora said that poverty is a big factor in human trafficking. CRS has been warning people about the dangers of migration and developing opportunities for people to find livelihoods close to home and keep families intact.
But Arora added that poverty is not solely responsible for human trafficking. CRS sees data showing 40% of trafficking victims have been trafficked by known friends or relatives. She said even persons from wealthy families have become victims of traffickers, who try to find ways to blackmail and exploit them.
“Trafficking doesn’t heed any class, creed or caste,” Arora said.
CRS India is also developing ways to rescue and rehabilitate survivors of trafficking. Jomey Joseph, a CRS program leader in India, said victims need a lot of psychotherapeutic support to live normal lives, because trafficking has deeply affected the way they dress and talk, and even their sleeping patterns.
“A lot of follow-up is required to see them through,” she said, adding that traffickers are also eager to reassert their control over their former victims, and many victims feel a “pull” to run back to their traffickers.
Joseph said the lack of safe houses is a “big gap.” She said CRS is trying to create model shelters that other organizations can spread to other parts of India.
Not everything changes overnight. Sometimes a survivor’s rehabilitation process may take seven years, or more.
But Joseph said they are seeing lives saved and families restored. One young teenager, Joseph said, had been trafficked by a member of her community and kept as a sex slave in a storeroom shared with other enslaved girls in Hyderabad until her rescue three months later. However, this teenager learned carpentry skills while going through the CRS recovery program, which helped affirm her own sense of dignity, and she eventually was able to be reunited with her family. “Now she’s able to support her family,” she said, adding that her livelihood enabled her family to move into a new house. “That’s a real change.”
Stepping Up the Fight
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a Catholic and author and sponsor of the bill, told the Register the legislation aims to expand the best practices on fighting human trafficking to all levels of the federal government. For instance, Smith pointed out the law would empower the Department of Labor to help the government and businesses establish trafficking-free supply chains. It would also require the federal government to use airlines whose employees are trained in how to identify potential trafficking situations and report to law enforcement.
“It’s a major step forward,” said Smith, who said he named the bill after Frederick Douglass — an African-American slave for 20 years who became “one of the greatest abolitionists in American history” — in order to underscore the reality that human trafficking is “modern-day slavery.”
The law strengthens the prosecution side of trafficking and the ability of law enforcement to put buyers of sex trafficking into prison.
Smith explained it makes clear that not only are children under 18 automatically regarded as victims of sex trafficking, but law enforcement are to regard women in prostitution as victims of sex trafficking if “any element of force, fraud or coercion” is involved.
Smith also said the bill corrects an injustice that occurred during the Obama administration, when the U.S. bishops’ conference was excluded from renewal for managing an anti-trafficking grant from the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) because the USCCB refused to allow its partners to procure or refer abortion services for victims of trafficking. Smith said the reauthorization prevents the government from repeating that kind of discrimination in the future. He said the consensus that more needs to be done is good, but demand has not abated globally. However, the lawmaker said Catholics could play a more active role in fighting trafficking by getting involved at the local level.
Local Parishes Can Lead
Smith underscored that Catholic parishes can play a pivotal role by training people in how to identify situations of human trafficking, which saves people. “Become informed, and let that information spur action locally,” he said.
St. Francis of Assisi parish in Triangle, Virginia, is one of the parishes that has engaged already in the fight against trafficking. Gary Burton, head of the parish’s anti-human-trafficking committee, told the Register the parish has applied for a HHS grant made possible through the existing TVPA legislation. The parish got involved in the fight four years ago and is part of a local coalition working to make a difference.
The HHS grant will help St. Francis of Assisi and the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Initiative to further their efforts to conduct community outreach to help everyday people identify the signs of human trafficking and also hire three analysts to help law enforcement in Prince William, Stafford and Spotsylvania counties identify and record victims of trafficking.
“The victims are here in the community,” Burton said. “Human trafficking is not just a developing-world kind of issue. It is here in the United States; it is here in our counties, our cities, our towns, and we just have to unmask it.”
Burton said that local Catholics readily responded after learning human trafficking is a “real problem” in their community. And he said St. Francis of Assisi has helped train other parishes that want to start anti-human-trafficking ministries for their own communities.
“If you can build that awareness, then people are willing to take that next step, which is to act and get involved in some way,” he said.
Steinitz said CRS is optimistic about the bill’s chances of passage, but she said the next step is making sure that the $538-million authorization bill is fully funded in the appropriations process. Steinitz said the money spent on fighting human trafficking has not only helped rescue and prevent more victims, but also has made sure that ethical American businesses are not undermined by businesses that gain an immoral economic advantage by exploiting child and slave labor overseas.
“There are more human slaves than at any other time in history,” Steinitz said. “And Americans can make a difference.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.