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Rubio Questions State Department's Enforcement of Human Trafficking Laws

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is raising questions about whether the State Department is failing to enforce human trafficking provisions when it comes to foreign dignitaries on U.S. soil, in the wake of recent allegations of human slavery against a Saudi diplomat in Washington.

The high-profile incident at the Saudi diplomat’s home in Northern Virginia is reportedly under federal investigation; two female Filipino domestic workers have claimed they were victims of human trafficking there, with the diplomat confiscating their passports and forcing them to work long hours without pay.

In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry obtained by CQ Roll Call, Rubio noted that the problem is not a new one.

“In 2008, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia entered a $1 million final judgment against a Tanzanian diplomat” who “had trafficked a young woman from Tanzania and held her in forced labor for four years.”

He also documented how, in March 2010, a Tanzanian World Bank employee pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and agreed to pay back wages to a domestic worker who escaped from her home.

In the May 14 letter, Rubio noted that in its 2008 reauthorization of an anti-human-trafficking law (PL 110–457), Congress authorized Foggy Bottom to suspend certain categories of U.S. visas used for guest workers to specific diplomatic missions or international organizations that have abused or exploited non-immigrant workers in the past.

And he questioned why, “in the five years since passage of this law, not a single country or mission has been suspended” from this worker visa program.

Congress reauthorized the anti-trafficking law again earlier this year as part of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization (PL 113-4) enacted in March.

The Florida freshman has made trafficking, which usually involves either forced labor or the sex trade, one of his signature issues as he seeks to establish his international-affairs credentials, although it’s not nearly as high-profile as others on his plate, such as immigration.

The government also “has the power to prosecute diplomats for engaging in modern-day slavery,” Rubio notes in his letter, trumping the diplomatic immunity most employees of foreign governments enjoy in another country. “But the Department of State appears to have requested only two waivers of immunity from diplomats’ countries of origin, one from Kuwait and one from Mauritius,” he writes.

Scrutiny From House

Rubio’s complaints aren’t the only ones raised recently by members of Congress when it comes to Foggy Bottom’s anti-trafficking efforts.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee has held two hearings in the past month on various elements of preventing human trafficking — which is a global phenomenon. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., estimated at one of the hearings that roughly 17,000 people are trafficked into the United States each year.

He and Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., the original sponsor of Congress’ landmark anti-human-trafficking legislation (PL 106–386), fault the State Department for not singling out countries that are failing to combat trafficking.

Under the anti-trafficking law, first passed in 2000, Foggy Bottom must release an annual report evaluating countries’ efforts to eliminate the practice and grouping them into three tiers. “Tier Three” countries, the lowest tier, are deemed non-compliant with the U.S. law’s minimum standards and can face sanctions. It’s the sort of public black eye that countries lobby aggressively to avoid.

Royce and Smith complain that these lobbying efforts have prompted State Department resistance when it comes to moving countries into tier three, even when it’s clear they deserve to be there.

“In the past 13 years, international peer pressure and the potential threat of U.S. sanctions have pushed many nations to try to avoid the stain of a ‘Tier Three’ designation in the State Department’s annual report, and more than 130 countries have enacted anti-trafficking laws,” Royce said in his opening remarks at the May 7 hearing.

In the past few years, however, Foggy Bottom has resisted “putting on the Tier 3 list those countries that are involved” in trafficking, Royce added, singling out Cambodia as an example.

Royce and Smith have promised to keep a close eye on the annual trafficking report that the State Department is scheduled to release in June and hold officials accountable if the same trend persists.

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