Could Congressional Indifference Kill the ‘Most Important Anti-Trafficking Law Ever Passed’?

By Greg Asbed, Co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers
Published on January 17, 2013 in the Huffington Post Blog

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Twenty years ago, Laura Germino and I left the dusty streets of Immokalee, Florida, and headed north, bound for the Justice Department in Washington, DC. We carried with us a binder full of evidence from our investigation into a brutal modern-day slavery ring that was holding tomato pickers captive in Florida and South Carolina — evidence of homicide, of brutal public beatings, of systemic sexual assault.

We assumed our carefully compiled files would spark a DOJ investigation and, ultimately, a prosecution of the farm bosses behind those unconscionable abuses. But instead, following a short meeting with attorneys from the Civil Rights Division, we found ourselves right back on the street, asking each other what had just happened. The DOJ lawyers had told us in no uncertain terms that there was nothing they could do. Our clear and compelling evidence of an ongoing slavery ring was met with what can only be described as astounding indifference by those government officials charged with addressing the problem.

Much has changed for the better since that encounter, but, disconcertingly, the battle to rid this country of forced labor and human trafficking is once again threatened with a monumental setback at the hands of governmental indifference.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) sparks unprecedented progress in the fight against modern-day slavery. After the Justice Department sent us packing, it took five more years of hard work — both by those of us at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and by a new team of DOJ attorneys who reopened the file and took on a complicated prosecution — before Miguel Flores and Sebastian Gomez, the farm bosses behind the slavery operation we had uncovered, were ultimately sentenced to 15 years each in federal prison on slavery, extortion, and firearms charges. US v. Flores was a landmark case in that it brought to light the problem of modern-day slavery in the U.S., which had been largely invisible for decades, prompting then Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Deval Patrick to say, “Today’s case shows that slavery is not a thing of the past. No person should be denied the right to freedom, and we will continue to prosecute these cases for as long as necessary.”

But despite the positive outcome, no one would look back today at the pace of the Flores prosecution and call it a success. In the five long years between discovering the operation and sentencing the perpetrators, countless victims continued to suffer abuse. For those workers, justice delayed was indeed justice denied.

That was soon to change, however, with the enactment of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000. Since the conclusion of US v. Flores in 1997, theCoalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has worked with the Justice Department on six more successful forced labor prosecutions, the most recent of which, US v. Navarrete, resulted in lengthy sentences for two more farm bosses on charges of conspiracy, holding workers in involuntary servitude, and peonage. While the Flores and Navarette cases were in many ways similar, the tools available to prosecute them were decidedly not, thanks to the TVPA. In the 12 years between those cases, the ability to combat modern-day slavery had undergone a sea change. The Navarrete case took less than a year from its discovery to sentencing. In just over a decade, the work of investigating and trying a complex slavery prosecution had grown far more efficient, sparing thousands of workers across the country untold suffering at the hands of their employers.

Break the Chains, the widely-respected anti-trafficking organization based in Washington, has called the TVPA “arguably the most important anti-trafficking law ever passed.” The TVPA penalizes modern-day forms of slavery, updating the anti-peonage laws passed during Civil War Reconstruction to fit the forced labor and human trafficking still occurring in the homes, brothels, and workplaces of the 21st century. It provides desperately-needed emergency services and protections to victims of these crimes, empowering them to do their part in bringing abusive bosses to justice. And it both enables and requires numerous federal agencies to attack this egregious human rights abuse, creating a mandate that didn’t exist when Laura and I innocently knocked on DOJ’s door 20 years ago.

Today the TVPA, and the progress it made possible, is in danger. Yet today the TVPA languishes in a state of limbo, unfunded, its reauthorization in doubt. It seems impossible, but as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the “most important anti-trafficking law ever passed” may well be allowed to expire. Once again, government indifference threatens the effort to address modern-day slavery.

The stakes could not be higher. In the words of Susan French, a former federal prosecutor with an unrivaled track record of successful slavery prosecutions, “If we as a nation are serious that slavery in all its forms is morally and legally wrong, then we must bring justice to trafficking victims, provide for their essential needs, and attempt to make them whole. Without the TVPRA extension, victims will not be able or available to participate in the judicial process. Traffickers will go unpunished and victims will not receive justice or restoration.”

The CIW’s Laura Germino, who in 2010 became the first domestic recipient of the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Hero Award for her contributions to the fight against modern-day slavery in our own country, agrees, adding, “It seems the height of dysfunction to allow the law, in this year of commemoration of our country’s enduring fight to end slavery, to expire. Modern-day slavery is prosecutable and preventable, and it is outrageous to allow more people to suffer when the solution is proven, workable, and has a steady and long tradition of bipartisan support.”

The TVPA simply works. Congressional indifference threatens the existence of the TVPA, a seminal act of national vision that is fundamental to the cause of human rights and the eventual eradication of modern-day slavery. Such indifference will, with certainty, encourage those who would enslave others and result in an increase in forced labor. We as a nation cannot allow this to happen.

The TVPA works to fight modern-day slavery and must be re-authorized. There is simply no justification for returning to the dark days when forced labor went mostly unrevealed, and vulnerable workers were forced to suffer in silence at the hands of their employers.