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Human Trafficking Bill Resurrected in Congress

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This week the Senate took care of the unfinished business of reauthorizing legislation to combat the crime of trafficking, including services for domestic victims. Now it's up to the House.

The Senate applied the buddy system this week to shepherd anti-human trafficking legislation through the system. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) attached the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) as an amendment to the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

On Tuesday, Leahy's amendment passed 93 to 5 and VAWA then passed 78 to 22.

If the Senate version becomes law, funding for housing, legal services, counseling and case management will be available for the first time to domestic victims of sex and labor trafficking; it’s estimated that American-born citizens make up 83 percent of sex trafficking cases in the U.S. “Our effort is to stop human trafficking at its roots by supporting both domestic and international efforts to fight against trafficking and to punish its perpetrators,” said  Leahy. “We provide critical resources to help support victims as they rebuild their lives,” he said.

Many updates are included, According to an aide in Leahy’s office:  “It ensures better coordination among federal agencies, between law enforcement and victim service providers, and with foreign countries to work on every facet of this complicated problem. It includes measures to encourage victims to come forward and report this terrible crime, which leads to more prosecutions and help for more victims.”

The TVPA had expired in 2011 and failed to get reauthorized in 2012. Another failed attempt at reauthorization this session would have been devastating to domestic victims of sex trafficking, who saw their best hopes of treatment and prevention programs stalled last year, even though it had enjoyed bipartisan support since first passing in 2000.  A Democratic aide explained the impact after chances of passage disappeared at the end of December: “Funding will continue through the appropriations process [through 2013], but the failure to pass a reauthorization bill" would mean "no updates or improvements to existing programs, like services for domestic trafficking victims.”

If the Senate version is passed in the House, funding would be extended through 2017.

A second, bipartisan trafficking amendment was added to the VAWA also on Tuesday through the offices of Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Rob Portman (R-OH), to protect child sex-trafficking victims.    Another sign of momentum in Congress on combating trafficking is Senator Barbara Boxer’s (D-CA) bill that would “establish the United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking to review federal government policy on human trafficking.”

President Obama had expressed his commitment to stopping domestic trafficking last September in a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative. “The bitter truth is that trafficking also goes on right here, in the United States, " he said.  "It’s the migrant worker unable to pay off the debt to his trafficker. The man lured here with the promise of a job, documents then taken, and forced to work endless hours in a kitchen. The teenage girl, beaten, forced to walk the streets,”   That same month the president signed an executive order stating the United States would “lead by example” and take steps to “ensure that federal contracts are not awarded to companies or nations implicated in trafficking,” the New York Times reported. 

The measure now moves to the House, which remains a brick wall to progress for bipartisan passage. http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2013/02/senate-vote-vawa.php The trafficking bill reauthorization didn’t pass there in 2012, and worse, a whole new controversy was introduced by religious conservatives, one that will have to be dealt with in 2013. Birth control is the main issue, and demands for a conscience clause could allow providers of services to trafficking victims the opportunity to opt out of providing contraceptives and reproductive health options. Catholics for Choice’s Sarah Hutchison says no conscience clause is needed because an agency can simply refer out if they have a problem offering reproductive healthcare services. “Not letting human trafficking survivors know what’s available is a problem,” she said. Phone calls to a chief “conscience clause” backer Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) were not returned.

Rachel Lloyd, founder of the anti-trafficking organization Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, finds little use for the conscience clause in a program designed to transform victims into survivors and leaders. “I think it’s disgusting” that religious groups have held up the TVPRA because of limitations from the conscience clause, she said. “They‘re holding services hostage and that has implications for vital programs that could fund assistance for domestic trafficking victims.” She added it doesn’t make sense to, on religious grounds, withhold funding to help girls and women who have “gone through awful trauma.”
“That’s not my understanding of faith,” Lloyd said. No matter what religion you are, she said, “it’s my understanding that faith is about caring about the needy and the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized.” 

The version of the bill in the House also weakened the legislation by switching administration of programs from Health and Human Services to the Department Of Justice, ignoring the medical care and counseling trafficking victims need to get their lives together. The activist group Mujeres Talk explained its opposition to this move by the House: “This shifting makes little sense as the Department of Justice, in comparison to the Department of Health and Human Services, is not equipped to deal with the multi-faceted experiences and needs of survivors.” 

Overall, human slavery is characterized by the FBI as “the fastest-growing business of organized crime and the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world.” According to Leahy’s office, “The Polaris Project estimates that there are more than 27 million victims of human trafficking worldwide today.” Advocates are urging House members to take up the Senate version of TVPRA and pass it right away.

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