State legislatures step up efforts to fight human trafficking

By Michael W. Savage
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2010; A03

A burst of activity among state legislatures to target human trafficking has ushered in dozens of laws to step up criminal penalties against traffickers and offer new help to victims.

The laws focus on practices that have remained largely hidden -- traffickers' coercion of victims into becoming prostitutes, forced laborers or domestic slaves. Some states have introduced measurers that criminalize human trafficking specifically for the first time. Advocates say the efforts signal that lawmakers are gaining a fuller appreciation of the scope of human trafficking.

So far this year, more than 40 bills have been enacted and roughly 350 introduced. That compares with just eight bills adopted across the country in 2006, according to the Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking group based in Washington.

Ann Morse, a director at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), said bills tackling human trafficking are "the latest big trend." The efforts have followed coverage of high-profile cases and a growing grass-roots campaign among advocates.

The term "trafficking," said Bradley Myles, executive director of the Polaris Project, "makes people think of whips, chains, brute force and channel slavery." In reality, he said, traffickers may simply use threats or blackmail, or confiscate a victim's travel documents to gain control over them. Victims have included U.S. citizens forced into work without being moved across a border.

Washington state, which has been at the forefront of the issue, expanded its efforts this year amid fears that the Winter Olympics in nearby Vancouver, B.C., would be a major draw for traffickers. Among other things, new legislation ensured that hotline posters were displayed at rest stops throughout the state.

"We were the first state to start all of this," said state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D), the sponsor of much of the state's anti-trafficking legislation. "We've strengthened the law every year." In 2009, she said, the state forced employers who bring in foreign workers to notify them of all labor laws and allow them to keep their travel documents.

Laws also were passed this year in Vermont and Oklahoma, among other states, and they take a range of approaches.

The D.C. Council passed a wide-ranging bill in June that criminalizes labor and sex trafficking. The law allows police to seize the assets of traffickers and includes more legal support for victims. A third party who benefits from trafficking can also be prosecuted. The new law also requires authorities to collect statistics to get a better understanding of the problem.

Virginia has set up a commission to look at sex and labor trafficking in the state, with a report expected by January. The state adopted legislation in March 2009 that allowed abduction charges against anyone who used force, intimidation or deception to compel another person to perform work. This year, a new Virginia law allows vehicles used for trafficking to be confiscated.

"I represent a large number of immigrants and learned more and more about the issue of trafficking," said Virginia Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D), who sponsored one of the new laws. "By putting the code in place, I'm hopeful we can now combat it."

One woman in Virginia said she had come to the United States from her native Angola to become a domestic worker because of the promise of medical treatment for a long-term illness. Once here, she found herself working as a housebound slave for as much as 20 hours a day. The medical attention she was promised never arrived. Her captors would not allow her to leave the house alone, even chaperoning her to the grocery store, she said. Unable to speak English, she was trapped.

A driver working for her employer told her she was not the first. He said "there were other women that were brought to work at the house, and they were all treated very badly, like slaves," said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear her captors would find her. "I don't know what happened to them."

The woman said she cried every day during her incarceration, sometimes searching the house for pills she could use to kill herself. Only a chance encounter with a woman at a store who spoke her native language, and the intervention of a church group, led to her rescue.

Given the volume of new legislation, the NCSL will formulate a policy statement on trafficking for the first time at its annual summit, to be held this month. The statement will allow the bipartisan group to work more closely with the federal government on the issue.

Trafficking, said Sheri Steisel, an attorney for the NCSL, "touches both foreign and U.S.-born citizens, and it's certainly an area that a lot of legislators have determined is a high-priority issue."

A significant rise in calls to the national human trafficking hotline, run by the Polaris Project since December 2007, suggests there is also a higher recognition of the problem among the public. "In the first month, we were getting around 300 or 400 calls," Myles said. "Now we're getting 900 to 1,000 a month."

Advocates said the next step is to translate the laws into convictions. So far, even in Washington, prosecutions remain relatively rare.

Statistics documenting the problem are vague and vary widely. The government estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 victims of trafficking are brought to the United States each year. A study funded by the Justice Department found that almost 250,000 children fall into a category of trafficking victims because they are at risk of sexual exploitation.

"The majority of the people who are implementing law enforcement and criminal justice responses across the country aren't necessarily trained to identify it," Myles said. "I think most estimates of this out there are underestimates."

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