(Photo: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)
President Barack Obama issued an executive order Tuesday aimed at strengthening his administration's efforts to combat human trafficking. Later that day, he announced the effort in a speech at the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York. He praised the work of Christian groups, noting that they are "answering the Bible's call."
Referring to it as "modern slavery," Obama spoke about "the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking."
"Now, I do not use that word, 'slavery' lightly," Obama continued. "It evokes obviously one of the most painful chapters in our nation's history. But around the world, there's no denying the awful reality."
Obama described the different forms of slavery, such as those forced to work in sweatshops or as domestic servants, to fight in a war, or to become a prostitute.
"When a little girl is sold by her impoverished family -- girls my daughters' age -- runs away from home, or is lured by the false promises of a better life, and then imprisoned in a brothel and tortured if she resists -- that's slavery. It is barbaric, and it is evil, and it has no place in a civilized world," Obama said.
Obama praised the work of faith-based groups working to combat human trafficking.
"We are especially honored to be joined today by advocates who dedicate their lives -- and, at times, risk their lives -- to liberate victims and help them recover. This includes men and women of faith, who, like the great abolitionists before them, are truly doing the Lord's work -- evangelicals, the Catholic Church, International Justice Mission and World Relief, even individual congregations, like Passion City Church in Atlanta, and so many young people of faith who've decided that their conscience compels them to act in the face of injustice," Obama said.
He also cited some of the scriptural reasons these groups engage in those activities, noting they "are answering the Bible's call -- to 'seek justice' and 'rescue the oppressed.'"
Though he praised the work of Christian groups, last year his administration decided not to renew a federal grant for a the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to fight human trafficking because it is opposed to providing referrals for abortion services.
Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) mentioned this in criticizing Obama's speech in a Tuesday statement.
"Domestically, the President wants to promote awareness of human trafficking, despite his track record of removing the experts at providing these services. Last year, this Administration removed the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) as recipient of a grant to assist victims of domestic human trafficking despite having the highest-ranking score and successfully administering the grant for the previous five years. USCCB was not eligible for assisting victims of human trafficking solely because they would not encourage victims of abuse to seek an abortion or contraceptive drugs," Lankford said.
Lankford also accused Obama of undermining his efforts to pass bi-partisan legislation to address the issue of government contractors using forced labor.
"For more than a year, a bi-partisan group has worked in the House and Senate to address the global issue of human trafficking in federal contracting, since more than twenty executive policies and regulations have failed to stop the practice," Lankford explained. "One more executive order will not solve the problem. We have a loophole in our law that must be closed, and we have serious enforcement issues of existing law."
As part of the new effort, Obama said the interagency task force to combat human trafficking will be expanded and given additional resources, prepare a new assessment of human trafficking that will include, for the first time, the United States, and simplify the procedures for visas that allow victims to remain in the United States.
He also said that his "Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships will make the fight against human trafficking a focus of its work," and will partner with Humanity United.
The executive order will also tighten requirements placed on government contractors designed to ensure that forced labor is not being used.
"In short, we're making clear that American tax dollars must never, ever be used to support the trafficking of human beings. We will have zero tolerance," Obama said.
Obama also called on Congress to renew the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which was first signed by President Bill Clinton and renewed under Obama's predecessor -- President George W. Bush.