Human Trafficking Victims Face Greater Peril by Congressional Delays

By Mary C. Ellison, Director of Policy for Polaris Project
Published on January 18, 2013 in the Huffington Post Blog

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Women and girls trapped in brothels. Men forced to work long hours under harsh conditions for minimal or no pay, unable to leave due to huge debts and threats to their family. Teenagers forced to sell their bodies online by cunning pimps. Women tricked into coming to the U.S. only to find themselves working as a domestic slave in a diplomat’s home.

In 2012, the National Human Trafficking Hotline, operated by Polaris Project, assisted thousands of victims of human trafficking across the country who shared stories like these. Through this hotline, my colleagues responded to some 20,000 calls from survivors of human trafficking seeking help, from community members reporting tips of suspected trafficking, and from activists wanting to learn how they can end human trafficking in their towns.

All across the country, people are waking up to the fact that modern-day slavery is happening in their own backyards, and they want their elected officials to take action. However, for the past year and a half, Congress has failed to reauthorize America’s cornerstone legislation to fight human trafficking. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act, initially enacted in 2000 and reauthorized three times with bipartisan support, has greatly increased America’s ability to protect victims and prosecute traffickers, as well as set important funding benchmarks. Yet, now it is stalled and victims of trafficking are suffering.

Alvin is one such survivor who I have had the privilege to meet. Alvin dreamed of coming to the United States to teach science, which he had taught in Southeast Asia for 12 years. A recruiter in his country offered to help him apply for an H-1B visa to teach in the United States if he paid $5,000 USD. He was told he could earn triple that within a year. So, he sold his property and took out a loan to pay the exorbitant fee.

When Alvin arrived in Philadelphia with his visa in hand, he was told the teaching position he was promised was no longer available. Confused and scared, Alvin was taken to a small, unfurnished apartment in Washington, D.C. with 14 other teachers. The recruiter told them that they would instead be working in day jobs. Alvin immediately worried about the significant loans he had taken out and wondered how he would be able to support his family. When he asked the recruiter for help, the recruiter showed him his gun. He told Alvin that if he ever asked for assistance again or talked to law enforcement officials, he would kill Alvin’s son.

This story has a relatively happy ending, as Alvin eventually was able to escape and found Polaris Project’s Client Services Department. Today, he is working in a store and an attorney is helping him to get a T-visa, a special visa granted to victims of human trafficking. But his experiences also demonstrate why we need to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) now.

This bill would help protect people like Alvin, authorize funding for vital services for trafficking survivors, and fill critical gaps by building on the impact of the original law. The legislation encourages the distribution of the Polaris Project-operated National Human Trafficking Hotline number within federal and state agencies so that Alvin and other victims have a place to call to get help 24 hours a day. In order to prevent recruiters from preying off of more people like Alvin, the bill strengthens the ability to prosecute those who fraudulently recruit individuals in foreign labor contracts and helps foreign governments investigate labor recruitment centers where trafficking victims may be recruited. It also establishes grant programs for states to assist child victims of sex trafficking.

Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) continue to be staunch supporters of the TVPRA, and in honor of Human Trafficking Awareness Month, they both publicly committed to passing this bill this year. We strongly encourage both the Senate and House of Representatives to follow their leadership, come together and get this done. There is simply no excuse to put off the passage of this legislation any longer. Ongoing delays only come at the cost of the men, women and children who are exploited by unscrupulous human traffickers looking for an easy profit.