Guest Column: Modern Slavery is Brutal Reality in US, and We Must Act to Stop It

By Beth Jacobs
Published on February 05, 2013 in To The Arizona Daily Star

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The horrors of slavery that took place 150 years ago in America were out in the open, even tolerated. All these years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, I want to share the horrors of modern slavery that are often hidden.

In opening our eyes to what’s happening around the country and here in Arizona, my hope is that we will translate President Lincoln’s legacy into action by emancipating today’s victims of slavery.

The U.S. State Department estimates that more than 27 million people are victims of human trafficking, and the trade in human beings is a $32 billion black market industry. Here in Arizona, the National Human Trafficking Resource reports that young girls are prostituted at our truck stops, via the Internet and on our streets. Our borders are busy conduits of human trafficking. Yet our resources for victims of this crime are few and far between, and most first responders lack training.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act is the key to greater resources, but Congress let it expire in 2011.

As a social worker and advocate, I have a unique perspective on human trafficking. I am also a survivor of this terrible crime.

At the age of 16, I ran away from my rural home, where I felt unwanted and unloved. I joined a friend in the city, where I met someone I believed was trustworthy. That person, who would become my trafficker, told me we were going to a party; he drugged me, drove me to another state, took my eyeglasses and other belongings, beat me and prostituted me. I cried while being raped and was beaten for giving the man a bad experience. He said if I cried again he would kill me.

This was my entrance into the world of the sex trade, and I went into survival mode. When your life involves daily rapes and routine beatings, survival means simply going through the motions necessary to ensure you live to the next day. It took me almost six years to escape that life, and many more before I found rehabilitation services to help me have a normal life.

I was arrested more than 200 times for prostitution-related crimes before I was 21 years old, but no one recognized that prostitution was not my occupation – it was oppression. No one understood that a person does not magically gain insight, strength and fortitude simply because she turns 18, particularly when all she knows is brutality and fear.

In the more than 20 years since I escaped life as a trafficked prostitute, I obtained a degree in social work and launched a career helping women get out of the sex industry. I believe that the very best way to help victims of modern slavery is by passing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

Programs like Phoenix’s Project R.O.S.E. are wonderful, but Arizona needs more training for medical personnel, law enforcement, social service providers, foster parents, teachers and child protective services. We also need greater provision of victims’ services that utilize survivors for support, and prosecution of traffickers – the protection act reauthorization provides for expansion of all of these.

We must open our eyes to the harsh reality that men, women and children are trafficked every day. I hope you will join me in calling upon President Obama, Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, and all of Congress to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, our strongest tool for fighting modern-day slavery in the United States.

Beth Jacobs moved to the Tucson area one year ago and is establishing a nonprofit organization to support and empower victims escaping prostitution and sex trafficking.