Congress has only been back in session for a few days, yet our leaders already have an overwhelming amount on their plates. Between addressing the conflict with Iran and ending the fraudulent impeachment proceedings against President Trump, it will be easy for representatives and senators to turn their eyes away from the many issues Americans face. But this is precisely what they cannot afford to do. As we begin the new year and the new legislative session, our leaders must renew their commitment to ending human trafficking in the United States.
The arrest and death of Jeffrey Epstein last summer drew media attention to the greatest human rights violation occurring within our borders: the sale of human beings for sex. But Epstein was far from the only American who committed this crime. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 individuals are trafficked into the United States each year – but given the hidden nature of the crime, it’s possible that these numbers are low and there are far more victims than we currently realize.
Worse, the number of successful prosecutions that occur is also shockingly low. According to the State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report, only 501 convictions occurred at the federal level in 2018. While this number doesn’t account for successful prosecutions at the state level, it does indicate just how difficult it is to bring these criminals to justice – and how much we must redouble our efforts to end this scourge on our nation.
And there’s no time like the present. January is National Human Trafficking Awareness month – an opportunity for us all to recommit ourselves to eliminating trafficking. And though this issue should be of great importance to every American, it should be of particular importance to conservatives. Our faith-based values teach us that sex belongs in the sacred intimacy of a covenant marriage and that all human beings – regardless of where they come from or what they believe in – have a right to personal liberty. Human trafficking violates both of these convictions, forcing innocent men, women and children to give away their privacy and bodily autonomy against their will.
The scope of the problem means that no one sector or agency can tackle it alone. Cooperation is the key to making substantive headway and restoring freedom to victims. Federal leaders must continue to build on President Trump’s directives, bringing their expertise and resources to bear on a problem that impacts homeland security, public health, international affairs and transportation. State leaders also must be willing to cooperate with their colleagues in other states and regions, as traffickers target victims at interstate transportation hubs like bus stops, train stations, and airports. Thankfully, federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Transportation are taking increasingly proactive approaches. Under the leadership of Secretary Elaine Chao, agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration will receive specialized training on how to recognize signs of human trafficking and how to intervene effectively.
Additionally, state leaders should take a long, hard look at their laws to ensure that victims are given a fair chance at a clean slate once they escape being trafficked. Victims are often found by police and convicted of crimes they were coerced into committing. Some states have vacatur laws that enable victims to have their criminal records expunged, but other states force victims to carry the marks on their records for life – marks that can prevent them from finding a job, securing housing or receiving student loans. By updating these laws, state leaders can give victims the opportunity to find hope and healing in the aftermath of suffering the unimaginable.
Above all, however, I encourage leaders at all levels and of all types – religious and secular, state and federal, corporate and nonprofit – to continue reminding the public of how dire this issue truly is and urging them to take action. Trafficking often occurs in plain sight; even the nicest neighborhoods and some of the most outwardly respectable people are involved in this heinous crime. The less often that people turn away from the heartbreaking reality of trafficking and the more they keep their eyes open for suspicious situations, the better law enforcement will be able to intervene and assist victims.
2020 is not only the beginning of a new year, but the beginning of a new decade. My hope is that by the time we reach 2030, we’ll be able to say that we ended modern-day slavery and renewed America’s promise as a land where no one lives in fear and all live in safety and freedom.
Timothy Head is the executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.