These days, Congressional focus rightly rests on finding solutions to the nation’s unemployment crisis. But while our attention remains on putting Americans back to work, we cannot lose sight of our obligations as the world’s leading defender of human rights. That is why we are working in Congress to put an end to human trafficking — one of the great atrocities of our time.
Human trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation, forced labor or fighting wars remains a pervasive form of modern-day slavery in the United States and abroad. Millions of people are estimated to be enslaved by human trafficking around the world. The result is an incalculable amount of physical abuse and trauma and sometimes insurmountable psychological scars. The problem exists internationally and, shockingly, right here in our own backyard. The State Department estimates that thousands of victims are trafficked into the United States every year. Despite concerted federal, state and local efforts to battle this scourge, victims of human trafficking continue to be held against their will.
The United States has long been a beacon of human rights throughout the world, and refugees have sought asylum on our shores and protection under our laws. If we are to continue to be that light of hope to those persecuted around the world, we cannot sit idly by while human trafficking continues. We must take action to combat this problem domestically as well as internationally. And we must raise public awareness of this ravaging crisis.
That is why we have teamed together — a Democrat from Vermont and a Republican from Florida — to advance the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. When this law was first enacted in 2000, it won sweeping approval by both parties in Washington, D.C. Democrats and Republicans alike supported efforts to end this heinous crime. The success of the law has extended through both Republican and Democratic administrations and continues to win bipartisan support in Congress.
The law seeks to cut off human trafficking at its roots by supporting international and domestic efforts to fight the causes and punish the perpetrators of trafficking. Many nations around the world are partners in these efforts, and many are not. Those who support trafficking, whether through direct involvement or deliberate inaction, must be held to account. Beyond serving as a chilling reminder of how widespread this dehumanizing practice is around the world, the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report has provided a useful tool to nudge other nations toward action. We need to work with foreign partners to move beyond merely talking and toward enacting laws and resolutely prosecuting these criminal activities and better supporting victims.
Our efforts to reauthorize this important tool to combat trafficking will strengthen law enforcement tools and encourage community cooperation to identify victims, investigate offenses and provide victim services. Like all American families, Washington is tightening its fiscal belt, and our legislation ensures that this important work is done in a cost-effective way with maximum accountability and oversight to ensure that taxpayer money is being well spent. These are priorities with bipartisan support. Congress should act on this legislation to better deal with today’s challenges.
Finally, we have an obligation to call public attention to this troubling trend. Committed advocates, religious organizations and human and civil rights associations are finding innovative ways to work with law enforcement, the media and elected officials to elevate awareness of this international crisis. Most importantly, survivors with the courage to speak out and educate the public are telling their stories. These survivors compel us to take action.
We introduced this legislation one year ago, and it is time for Congress to act.
Part of what makes America exceptional is our compassion as a nation and our understanding that our most fundamental freedoms are not uniquely American privileges but are instead universal human rights. Trafficking is an affront to human dignity that we cannot ignore. The United States shines a beacon of hope to so many who face human rights abuses abroad. We cannot sit back idly while this injustice continues not only elsewhere in the world, but also here at home.
Our laws must be renewed and updated to protect victims and improve our government’s ability to combat modern-day slavery. No matter where they are in the world, the victims of human trafficking need a strong America to champion their cause as our own.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is chairman of the Judiciary Committee and the lead sponsor of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, is a lead co-sponsor of the bill.