The stories sound too horrible to be true. One woman tells of the boyfriend she loved forcing her to perform sex acts on strangers to pay for the rent. Another young girl says she was kept in abandoned warehouses and was shipped with dozens of other women in the back of trucks like cattle. News reports detail the story of a teenage girl who had her pimp’s initials forcibly tattooed on her eyelids to show that she was his property. Sadly, the personal accounts of sex trafficking are as common as they are horrific.
For many, as awful as the stories sound, this seems like a distant issue that couldn’t possibly occur in their neighborhoods. However, the facts show that sex slavery can be traced to the far corners of our country; no community is immune. Advocacy groups estimate that more than 100,000 children in the United States are exploited every year, the majority of whom are young girls. It reaches into our urban, suburban and rural communities and crushes the hopes and dreams of far too many. A simple Internet news search turns up cases of human trafficking in Maine, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Louisiana, Washington and Florida in just the past month.
The reality is that many traffickers prey on the vulnerable. Studies have estimated that up to 90 percent of runaways eventually end up in the sex trade. The average age that a girl is first trafficked is 13 years old. By taking advantage and exploiting these children when they are young, traffickers make it difficult for victims to leave. Many have lost connection with family and friends and are subject to the rule of law that sees them as criminals. An escape from prostitution often means time spent in a detention center, jail or homeless on the streets. While many are living their own personal hell, for these women it’s often a case of the devil they know being better than the devil they don’t.
The sad fact is that human trafficking is a problem that is only getting worse. The growth of the Internet has brought with it the ability for pimps and traffickers to find more susceptible victims and take sex slavery underground—away from the watchful eyes of law enforcement. In order to end this problem, we need a comprehensive approach to combating it.
That is why we’ve joined together to introduce legislation that will allow young women to escape from this tragic fate. Our bill, the “Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act” (HR 3610) would change current law to ensure that trafficked minors are treated as victims, and provide an avenue for them to leave their situation. The bill requires states to pass “safe harbor” legislation that takes victims down a path of protective services, counseling and skill building rather than entering the legal system and facing incarceration.
The Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act includes multiple prongs to attack sex trafficking in the United States. It would discourage prosecution of trafficked minors for prostitution related crimes. Currently, trafficked women are often not forthcoming with law enforcement because their statements could be used against them in a court of law. That makes it difficult for police and welfare agencies to find traffickers and bring them to justice. By taking prosecution off the table, victims of these crimes will be more willing to come forward and will be easier to help.
The bill would also provide opportunities for victims to build employment skills to help them find jobs. By making them eligible for participation in the Job Corps program, it decreases their susceptibility to human trafficking and minimizes the likelihood that they will be forced to return to sex slavery.
While “safe harbor” laws are already in effect in some jurisdictions, to end this epidemic, resources at the local, state and federal level will need to come together. Our legislation will establish a national strategy to combat human trafficking by integrating agencies and coordinating resources to be more effective in holding responsible the criminals that are ruining these young women’s lives.
Taking action to end sex trafficking is a cause that cannot wait. At a time when partisanship in Washington reigns, we are proud to reach across the aisle to support every daughter, sister and friend who has had their livelihoods and childhoods stolen. Our legislation is a bipartisan effort to combat this scourge, because ending the exploitation of children in our country is an issue that should have no ideological bounds.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., walks on Broadway after a Future Forum with young entrepreneurs in the Flatiron District of New York City, April 16, 2015. Reps. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Grace Meng, D-N.Y., also attended.