The nation’s new anti-human trafficking law, which was enacted with broad bipartisan support, must contend with a global industry reaping billions of dollars from enslaved men, women and children.
Some 21 million people worldwide are believed to be ensnared in human trafficking, much of which revolves around sex slavery.
Former sex-trafficking victim Tina Frundt, who founded the D.C.-based nonprofit Courtney’s House in 2008, said she is pleased the new Justice for Victims of Human Trafficking Act is “now in place.”
“Yes, it does need a lot of work, but now finally we have something to work with,” said Ms. Frundt, who started her program to search for and rescue trafficked youth and young adults, and help them build new lives.
While there is no official estimate for human trafficking victims in the U.S., it is believed that the number of adult and child victims in peonage and sexual slavery reaches into the hundreds of thousands, according to the Polaris Project, which runs the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) and hotline.
Data collected since 2007 by the NHTRC show that California, Texas, Florida and New York have the highest number of trafficking cases reported by states, with 973 of 1,345 cases involving sex trafficking. Female adults were the most likely to have been trafficked.
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The Justice for Victims of Human Trafficking Act, which passed unanimously in the Senate in April and almost unanimously in the House in May, was signed into law May 29 by President Obama.
Yasmin Vafa, director of law and policy at Human Rights Project for Girls, said the law means “survivors of child sex trafficking into the United States will finally receive the vital services and protections they deserve.”
This is the first time a federal law “specifically addresses domestic human trafficking and prioritizes the need to confront the demand for child sex,” Ms. Vafa said.
It also marks an acknowledgement “by both Congress and the president that we have a serious sex trafficking problem right here in the United States,” she said.
The new law is designed to step up law enforcement efforts against human trafficking and sexual abuse, as well as provide resources to victims.
A centerpiece of the law is a new Domestic Trafficking Victims’ Fund in the Department of Justice, which will be tapped to pay for law-enforcement programs and victims’ services.
The fund will be financed by people convicted of trafficking or related offenses: Courts are to levy a $5,000 “special assessment” on non-indigent people who sold or bought a trafficked person; engaged in sexual abuse, child pornography or child sexual exploitation; or engaged in interstate transportation for illegal sexual activity or commercial human smuggling.
The assessments, plus additional criminal fines, are expected to pay for the bulk of the law’s programs.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated in March that implementing the law would cost taxpayers about $1 million a year and less than $500,000 a year afterward.
The law also directs that at least $5 million in health care funds go to medical services for trafficking victims and $5 million in grants be carved out of an existing program to combat trafficking.
Congressional leaders praised the law’s potential to stem the tide of human misery and cripple fast-growing criminal activity, which is believed to be worth $150 billion worldwide, according to the Polaris Project and the International Labor Organization.
Criminal organizations and drug gangs “have realized that selling children can be more profitable than drugs,” Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary said last month. “This is because drugs are only sold once, but minor children can be, and are, prostituted multiple times a day, every day.”
Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Chuck Grassley of Iowa helped push the bill forward in their chamber, even after it sparked a lengthy dispute over the funding of reproductive services for female victims.
Polaris Project Chief Executive Bradley Myles, while applauding the bill, lamented that it does not include a measure proposed by Sens. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, and Susan Collins, Maine Republican, to address runaway and homeless youth.
“The Senate missed a unique opportunity to combat human trafficking by investing in services that could prevent this crime before it occurs,” Mr. Myles said, adding that desperate youth and especially those who are gay, lesbian and transgender are vulnerable to traffickers.