Vol. 37, No. 6

Taking on human trafficking: A role for every lawyer and every bar association

by Kavitha Sreeharsha

Human trafficking is an often misunderstood concept, and lawyers are just now beginning to grasp its complexities. In fact, many lawyers have only recently been exposed to this issue because ABA President Laurel G. Bellows made it one of her initiatives and has spent this year speaking about it with bar leaders and others.

As people learn more about human trafficking, they are rightfully outraged that such a gross violation of human rights touches 27 million people in the world, with less than 1 percent of them identified and protected. Yet lawyers and their bar associations still grapple with how to turn that outrage into action, and how to use their own legal skills to take on human trafficking.

At its Midyear Meeting in Dallas this past February, the National Conference of Bar Presidents hosted a plenary on this topic to offer tangible ways for bar associations and their members to take action against human trafficking. Here are just a few of the many ideas that were mentioned during that panel discussion (which I moderated), arranged according to area of practice:

  • Pro bono attorneys can represent trafficked people in many types of cases. They can assist those with motions to vacate criminal convictions related to trafficking.  They can provide immigration representation by applying for specialized relief available to trafficking victims who are without immigration status. Federal and many state laws also offer a private cause of action for trafficked people to sue their traffickers with pro bono representation. Even outside of these cases, pro bono attorneys with human trafficking training can identify trafficked persons from among their other pro bono clients and help them access the most comprehensive legal protections available.
  • Prosecutors who receive training can expand capacity to successfully represent trafficked people by improving coordination and collaboration with victim service providers, expanding the range of victims identified, and developing skills to anticipate how immigration, large victim cases (meaning cases where there is an unusually large number of victims, such as a case involving a trafficker or trafficking network with many victims), organized crime, and a range of other issues affect a human trafficking prosecution.
  • Defense attorneys are critical in identifying those who might be wrongly treated as offenders or perpetrators rather than as victims. This occurs not only in sex trafficking, but also in labor trafficking, where, for example, undocumented trafficking victims enter the system not because they are victims but because they are charged with immigration violations or other crimes associated with the trafficking.
  • Immigration attorneys with human trafficking training can develop and improve screening tools so that undocumented individuals who have been trafficked can access specialized immigration relief for victims of trafficking. They can also provide immigration representation by applying for the specialized relief that is available to trafficking victims who are without immigration status.
  • Family law attorneys with additional training can identify trafficked people from among their family law clientele in order to connect them with increased protections for trafficking victims.
  • Plaintiff trial attorneys with training to identify human trafficking in their clients’ experiences can adapt their pleadings to include human trafficking causes of action in employment cases.
  • Corporate counsel who receive human trafficking training and consultation can mitigate corporate risk in criminal liability and adhere to compliance requirements regarding slavery in their supply chains—which can also help their companies preserve their public reputation.

Eliminating myths and misconceptions

Eliminating misconceptions about human trafficking is critical to understanding its true nature. Lawyers and many others might interact with trafficked people every day without knowing it. Because trafficked people do not always understand their rights or trust authorities enough to self-identify, the better we understand what trafficked people may look like, the more trafficked people we will identify and protect.

Panelists Seymour W. James Jr., then president of the New York State Bar Association, Brent Benoit, then president of the Houston Bar Association, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Walt Junker helped dispel the many myths about human trafficking.

Junker told the audience about labor trafficking cases his office prosecutes, in addition to the sex trafficking cases that are what most people imagine when they hear the phrase “human trafficking.” Further, the perception is that all trafficked people are abducted and under physical restraints. Junker spoke about recruitment and coercion schemes in which the victims willingly sign on, often because of false descriptions of the terms and conditions of work, and then stay for various reasons, including manipulation and psychological abuse.

James’s bar association formed a Special Committee on Human Trafficking shortly after he became president, to evaluate current efforts to fight human trafficking in New York and the nation and to help judges, policymakers, and lawmakers determine whether the current laws are sufficient. That committee, which has subcommittees focused on labor, on sex trafficking, and on children’s needs, presented an oral report on its initial findings to NYSBA’s House of Delegates in April.

In Dallas, James spoke about sex trafficked minors who are often arrested and treated as offenders rather than victims. In general, by definition, human trafficking requires proof of force, fraud, or coercion, but this is not true for sex trafficking of minors. Yet minors continue to be arrested for prostitution-related offenses though they are likely victims and not offenders. Increased training for law enforcement, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys will enable trafficked minors to be treated as victims, and thereby receive protections, rather than as offenders who enter the criminal justice system. 

James also described the work being done by criminal defense and pro bono attorneys in New York state under a new law allowing trafficking victims to file motions to vacate convictions if those convictions were related to human trafficking. 

Describing his evolution from someone new to the issue to his current position as a leader among lawyers and bar presidents who are fighting human trafficking, Benoit shared the steps the Houston Bar Association has taken to involve and train its members. (For more information about the HBA’s efforts, please see “Houston bar president explains why, how he focused on human trafficking,” also in this issue.)

Connect with the ABA

Bar associations, law firms, government agencies, and others can all seek training and develop initiatives and policies to better address human trafficking within their own jurisdictions. The ABA Task Force on Human Trafficking, established by President Bellows, has many resources to help you get started or continue the work you’re already doing. Among them are:

NCBP chose this plenary topic because of the great opportunities for bar associations and their members to take action against human trafficking. I hope this article will inspire you to find out more about what your bar can do to combat the injustice of modern slavery, something you might see around you every day without even knowing it.

If you would like to learn more and will be in San Francisco for the ABA Annual Meeting, the Bar Association of San Francisco is hosting a brown-bag lunch event co-sponsored by the ABA Task Force: “The Laws Regarding Human Trafficking,” Thursday, August 8, 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m. I personally invite you to attend.

Kavitha Sreeharsha

Kavitha Sreeharsha is the executive director of the Global Freedom Center, which trains professionals to better identify and prevent human trafficking. She sits on the ABA Task Force on Human Trafficking and the ABA Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence.