The term “human trafficking” may bring to mind the image of someone in Eastern Europe being tricked into reporting for a job as a maid, only to find herself trapped in the Red Light District of Mumbai; or destitute parents in the developing world selling their daughter.
However, human trafficking isn’t just a problem in distant parts of the world. More than 100,000 girls are caught up in sex trafficking every year in the U.S. Boys are targeted, too, though the number is smaller. According to the FBI, trafficking is the fastest-growing category of organized crime and the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world. As it grows, it becomes glaringly obvious that our justice system lacks the tools needed to combat it.
As many as 300,000 children in this country are currently at high risk of becoming victims, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Traffickers first target vulnerable individuals, often using calculated movements to separate them from their friends and families and gain their trust. Manipulation and violence are then employed to keep the victim from leaving.
Just how close to home is this happening? An April 15 Oregonian story told of a Vancouver-area couple being chased by police and eventually caught and charged for trafficking a 17-year-old girl. A Columbian story in January reported on eight Portland-area men charged with trafficking women to other states. It’s a problem that’s growing right in our backyard.
Fortunately, this issue has started receiving more attention from lawmakers in Congress. I want to make sure that awareness translates into action. I support several legislative efforts that would help victims, as well as provide the criminal justice system with the tools needed to investigate, arrest and prosecute those involved with trafficking.
To successfully crack down on trafficking, we have to address the biggest areas of vulnerability. One major problem is that in many states, current law treats victims of sex trafficking as criminals after they’ve been coerced into participating in illicit activities. In these circumstances, victims see law enforcement as an enemy, not an ally. The Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking (SETT) Act seeks to establish safe-harbor laws that treat minors involved in child sex trafficking as victims, not criminals, and encourage law enforcement to direct victims toward child protective services for help. It also increases federal, state and local cooperation in investigating trafficking cases and going after buyers and pimps.
Foster care is another area of extreme vulnerability. Many in foster care have already suffered abuse — a huge risk factor in becoming a trafficking victim. Rep. Dave Reichert, former King County Sheriff, is leading the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Improving Opportunities for Youth in Foster Care Act to better prevent children in foster care from becoming victims of sex trafficking through increased monitoring and reporting.
In addition to helping victims, we must stop the perpetrators. The Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation Act (SAVE Act) confronts those who contribute to trafficking online by making it illegal for a website to knowingly allow advertisements for selling children for sex. Because of the profitability of the industry and loopholes in federal law, there has been resistance by these sites to end their facilitation of trafficking.
I also support the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act — a bill focused on tracking down and prosecuting criminals involved in all aspects of sex trafficking. It would also create a victim assistance fund by increasing the minimum penalty on those convicted of trafficking-related or exploitative crimes. Currently, minimum fines are only $100.
We have our work cut out for us, and these bills are just a start. Fortunately, there are local nonprofit organizations, law enforcement efforts and community members already fighting for the victims. In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be working with these groups to put an end to human trafficking.
U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, represents the 3rd Legislative District.