Vol. 37, No. 6

Houston bar president explains why, how he focused on human trafficking

by Marilyn Cavicchia

“Houston is a hub for human trafficking. You may be surprised to hear that, but the facts are undeniable. It is estimated that between 18,000 to 20,000 foreign national victims of human trafficking enter the United States each year. There are many more domestic victims each year. One out of every five of these individuals come through Texas.”

—Brent Benoit, President’s Message, “Houston Leads in Dark Statistic,” The Houston Lawyer, September/October 2012

As he approached his term as president of the Houston Bar Association—a term that ended in May—Brent Benoit didn’t plan for one of his initiatives to be raising awareness of human trafficking.

In fact, when a partner suggested that it should be a focus, Benoit dismissed it, believing that since he hadn’t heard of the problem before, it couldn’t be a very big one.

But then, a couple of weeks before his term began, he happened to attend a conference on various problems in the Houston metropolitan area, held by the nonprofit Center for Houston’s Future. There, he saw a video on human trafficking, featuring a survivor.

“It was a game changer for me,” he recalls, noting that he was stunned by the “reprehensible conduct” that was involved, and also by the fact that so few people knew about it or took it seriously.

While he was still at the conference, Benoit sent HBA Executive Director Kay Sim a type of email that he admits no E.D. wants to get: the news that he had one more initiative to add.

Holistic solutions needed

Many victims of human trafficking are arrested and charged with a crime, Benoit says, and have little legal representation. Beyond the criminal charges, they often have a host of other problems, involving, for example, housing and immigration.

Because many bar members were as unclear as he was on the issue of human trafficking, Benoit spent much of his presidential year getting the word out. He discussed human trafficking in his inaugural speech and then in presentations to other groups, and the Houston bar held multiple CLEs on the topic. The CLE seminars drew capacity crowds, reaching more than 300 people. One program, in which the audience included journalists as well as attorneys, featured a survivor who talked about her experiences.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” Benoit recalls.

The September/October 2012 issue of The Houston Lawyer focused almost exclusively on human trafficking; copies were handed out at a National Conference of Bar Presidents plenary at which Benoit spoke, at the 2013 Midyear Meeting in Dallas (see “Taking on human trafficking: A role for every lawyer and every bar association,” also in this issue). Attendees contacted him afterward to request additional copies and more information, Benoit says.

Now that more HBA members know about human trafficking, he adds, the next step is to determine the best ways to establish a coordinated pro bono effort to address the many different issues that can be involved. Current HBA President David Chaumette is maintaining the bar’s focus on human trafficking and, working with other interested organizations, intends to help develop these solutions, Benoit notes.

Benoit had no idea that ABA President Laurel G. Bellows would focus on human trafficking during a presidential year that overlapped significantly with his—Bellows’s term ends in August—and he was very pleased once he found out. Also fortuitous, he says, is that the Texas Young Lawyers Association has been doing “fantastic work” on this issue, producing videos and pamphlets to set out at legal clinics and elsewhere, to help lawyers, doctors, and others recognize and assist possible victims of trafficking.

“I have personally been at [legal] clinics and had victims come in,” Benoit says, noting that the TYLA materials provide questions for lawyers to ask, and ideas for what their next steps should be.

Advice for other bar leaders

Benoit acknowledges that the topic of human trafficking might at first seem controversial but says that’s no reason for a bar association to shy away from focusing on it.

Though there may be some debate among members regarding the best ways to stop human trafficking, he notes, the fact that it exists is “a really fundamental, down-the-middle, no-doubt-about-it denial of constitutional rights.”

Many churches and other faith-based organizations are already addressing human trafficking, Benoit says; lawyers should “have a seat at the table,” he believes, because it’s a legal issue as well as a moral one.

“We all took an oath to apply the laws of the land,” he says, “and this is not consistent with the laws of the land.”

Benoit received many appreciative emails over the course of his presidential year—from members all across the political spectrum—thanking him for making them aware of the issue of human trafficking. It was rare, he recalls, for any conversation about the Houston bar not to eventually involve members or others saying how glad they were that the bar had taken on this issue.

Though his decision to focus on human trafficking was quick and easy, Benoit says, it took a couple of months to figure out exactly how the bar would address the issue. He recommends taking time to look into what others—such as the ABA, other bar groups, and local grassroots organizations—are already doing, so as not to duplicate efforts.

“My No. 1 piece of advice is to go for it,” he adds. “It’s too big an issue not to.”