WASHINGTON — Twenty years ago, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., saw landmark legislation enacted into law that fundamentally transformed the way the U.S. fights human trafficking at home and overseas.
In this interview with the Register, Smith, who has championed human rights in his congressional tenure, discusses the legacy of the 2000 Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, the 20th “Trafficking in Persons” report, and how his Catholic faith has driven his decades-long fight to save people from the horrors of trafficking.
We’ve just had the 20th “Trafficking in Persons” (TIP) report as a result of the landmark law on human trafficking you wrote. What does it tell you about the fight against this scourge of human slavery today?
We’ve made a huge impact on the traffickers. For women victims, there are hundreds of thousands who have been assisted. It’s hard to have an exact number, but there has been a tremendous amount.
On prevention, we haven’t done enough there, although my last law, the “Frederick Douglass law” [Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act of 2018] put a very heavy emphasis on prevention, particularly as it relates to schoolchildren. On best practices, awareness could be very, very significantly raised on how not to be trafficked. We need to start in an age-appropriate way, in elementary school, and then getting into high school and college.
On the prosecution side, we still have some places to do it well, and that’s why the TIP report’s so important. Because as you know, it takes the three Ps of Prevention, Prosecution and Protection, and then gives an analysis per country on each of those Ps. And on the prosecution side, countries like Ireland made a big deal about their law in 2013. But they haven’t had a successful prosecution since 2013.
What about COVID-19? How has the global pandemic challenged the fight against human trafficking?
The kids are online so much now that the groomers are doing horrible things to get them to send pictures of themselves and then say, “Let’s meet up somewhere.” And this has gone up 200% to 300% during COVID-19. The other challenge with COVID-19 is this lack of prosecutions because the police can’t do their due diligence and tracking these various networks down. So that has gone unattended here and globally. So a lot of women who had been put into gainful employment are unemployed now, making them vulnerable for retrafficking.
What’s one of the big impacts we’ve seen from the human-trafficking laws you wrote?
A lot of people didn’t realize — I certainly did, because I wrote the law — that it equally applies to the United States. So many of our state laws treat a woman who was picked up for say, prostitution, as if she’s the perpetrator of the crime, with no effort to determine the circumstances that brought her into that bondage. And so my bill says anyone who’s not attained the age of 18, if there’s one commercial sex act, she or he is a trafficking victim. After 18, if there’s any element of force, fraud or coercion — and remember, just one act is enough to trigger the law — she or he is a victim, and the trafficker can be prosecuted and get up to 20 years in prison. And if the child victim is 14 years of age or younger, it could be up to life imprisonment.
So [actress] Allison Mack, the woman that was in Smallville and was recently convicted, she was convicted under my law. Every provision in there was out of my original Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Jeffrey Epstein, the guy that committed suicide, [who] was close to the Clintons, he was being prosecuted exclusively under my law. He never obviously lived long enough to go to prison. But that statute applies equally to the United States and reaches jurisdictionally overseas for American citizens who commit these crimes abroad.
What are the ways you’d encourage Catholics to get involved in the fight against human trafficking?
Sheltering and looking out for ways to reach out to women who have been trafficked. I’ve been admonishing the Church since I got in this that the greatest role they can play is in sheltering.
Most states, including my own, have a trafficking working group or task force. Very often there are Catholics, including from Catholic Charities, that are on it. But I think the more we provide safe havens, even if they’re small, five or 10 women, it’s a place where they can go. And it can’t be just for a short while. One of the lessons learned in the beginning was somebody would be rescued, they’d stay three weeks to a month, and they’d be let go. And then they’d get retrafficked. They don’t have a skill and means of support, and so, unfortunately, they’re low-hanging victims for the traffickers to go and exploit.
I was in Lima, Peru, where they had a lot of young kids [rescued from trafficking] mentored by these wonderful, wonderful Catholic women who were mentoring them in computer skills and all these different skills so that they could be gainfully employed. And the joy on those little girls’ faces — all of them had been trafficked, exploited and raped — that was just astonishing. They had friendships; above all, they had the Lord; and I had the sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit. I was blown over by this and thought this is how it could all change, at least for those who have been exploited: They can get their lives back.
How has your Catholic faith driven you on this issue?
I feel it has been the core. It has been the core of everything I do. And for my wife, as well, we are a team.
I’m pro-life and embrace all these Matthew 25[:31-46] issues. I do believe that when Jesus talked about the least of our brethren, he meant situationally: Any one of us could be the least of our brethren. … Everybody in the eyes of God is extraordinarily special. That’s why we fight so hard for the unborn, like you do and so many others, and that’s why we have all these human-rights issues that I work on all the time.
We take the Scripture as our inspiration and ask God’s guidance for what we should be doing with our time, our efforts and our priorities.
St. John Paul II was also a great inspiration for the both of us: “Be Not Afraid” and standing up against tyranny when it looks like the odds are against you.
What else do you envision needs to be done to rid the world of human slavery?
I think there still needs to be an enormous amount of culture education to get rid of the “entitlement” that you can exploit a woman and think there’s no consequences. Many of those women who are exploited, probably most have trafficking as to how they got there. So I think it all comes down to respect for women and respect for children.
We are always looking for ways to make the laws better, and more money to appropriate for this effort, especially to train prosecutors, is warranted.
(This interview has been edited for length and content.)
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.