Bills to reauthorize and strengthen the Trafficking Victims Protection Act have begun moving through both houses of Congress, with approval early this month of legislation by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and markup for a similar bill expected shortly by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The law, first enacted in 2000 and reauthorized three times since then, seeks to abolish human trafficking by providing protection to trafficking victims, particularly child victims, and giving prosecutors tools to gain cooperation from witnesses and informants who can provide vital testimony in human trafficking prosecutions. In 2008, the law was amended to strengthen protection for unaccompanied children by, among other things, requiring that pro bono legal representation be provided for unaccompanied alien children in their immigration matters, where possible, at no expense to the government.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a two-year extension for the act Oct. 5 when it adopted H.R. 2830, legislation sponsored by Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.). The Senate bill, S. 1301, would reauthorize the act for four years.
“Human trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery in which victims are forced into labor or sexual exploitation,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said during a Sept. 14 hearing on the Senate bill, which he cosponsored. Although the United States has made significant strides on this issue, much work remains to be done, he said. Recent government estimates reveal that between 15,000 and 20,000 people are trafficked to the United States annually, and thousands more children in this country are bought and sold in the commercial sex industry every year.
During the hearing, officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) described their efforts to combat human trafficking under the law.
Kelly Ryan, acting deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Immigration and Border Security, DHS, described the Blue Campaign, through which 17 DHS components collaborate on prevention, protection, prosecution and partnership. The department also has played a critical role in providing victim assistance to foreign victims of trafficking in the United States, Ryan said.
The DOJ Office of Justice Programs’ emphasis has been on comprehensive “wrap-around” services for trafficking victims, according to Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Mary Lou Leary. This means support and advocacy for victims during their interaction with law enforcement and after the prosecution has concluded, she explained. “Wrap-around” also entails short-term and long-term assistance in coordination with the Department of Health and Human Services and culturally competent services that treat victims with dignity and respect.
The ABA strongly supports reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and adopted additional policy at the August 2011 Annual Meeting focusing on treatment of trafficked children within the United States who are often treated as criminals rather than victims. The policy urges state, local and tribal legislatures to aid minors who are victims of human trafficking in several ways, including permitting their immediate protective custody as dependent children and, except in extreme and compelling circumstances, not charging children under the age of 18 with certain crimes or status offenses that are incident to their trafficking situation.
The policy also urges Congress to enact legislation that enhances state, tribal, territorial and local efforts to combat trafficking of minor children through supporting legal services to victims, shelter and rehabilitative care, and prosecution of adults who are trafficking in minor children. The policy states that federal legislation also should help assure that all noncitizen children who have been exploited for labor, services or commercial sex acts are properly identified as “victims of a severe form of trafficking in persons” as specified in federal law.