Human Trafficking in the US

Even since human slavery was officially banned through the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, human trafficking continues to present an ongoing problem in the US and abroad. The US State Department reports [PDF] that between two to four million individuals are trafficked worldwide annually, with at least 17,500 of these individuals trafficked within the US. Other organizations, such as Catholic Relief Services, report far higher numbers, some as high as 12.5 to 27 million, with trafficking in the US reported in the hundreds of thousands. Organizations focused on ending child trafficking claim that there are as many as 300,000 children in the US at risk of commercial sexual exploitation, with most of them being US citizens.

The US Bureau of Justice Statistics classifies reported cases of human trafficking into two broad categories: labor and commercial sex. In the 2013 annual Trafficking in Persons Report, the US State Department stated [PDF] that trafficked individuals in the US can be found in areas as diverse as farms, the hospitality industry, restaurants, brothels, pornography studios and massage parlors. According to that same report, the most prominent nation of origin for trafficked individuals in the US in 2012 was the US, followed by Mexico, Thailand, the Philippines, Honduras, Indonesia and Guatemala.

Today, efforts to address and combat these issues in the US are being pursued mostly by the Executive Branch, under order of Congress, as well as through a variety of non-profit organizations in the private sector. Private sector organizations have undertaken the largest portion of efforts, including international lobbying and policy-based efforts by groups like Catholic Relief Services and MercyCorps, as well as smaller, more individual localized efforts by organizations in a variety of cities around the country.

Several states have also enacted legislation to combat state-based human trafficking concerns. Lawmakers in Texas identified Houston as a key port in the sex and labor trade; thus, Texas has played a major role in creating a state-based initiative to fight human trafficking. These efforts have included increased funding for law enforcement personnel focused on monitoring and finding individuals involved in trafficking, as well as enlisting the help of locals through education and outreach.

Legislative Branch

The federal government’s efforts to combat human trafficking stem from one major piece of legislation, as well as four reauthorized versions. The original legislation, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 [PDF], was passed in 2000, followed by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Acts of 2003, 2005, 2008 and 2013 (TVPRA). The legislation authorizes the US State Department and White House to work on educational, prevention and enforcement efforts surrounding human trafficking, as well as providing most of the funding for these efforts.

Congress has also addressed human trafficking in areas of immigration reform. Under the above stated law, individuals who are found to be victims of human trafficking, especially children, are granted certain immunities and permitted to pursue services and citizenship.

Executive Branch

The Obama administration has continued all of the programs enacted under the Bush and Clinton administrations to combat human trafficking, as well as bulked up some other efforts. Most recently, in April 2013, the White House held the Forum to Combat Human Trafficking. This one day forum brought together the various executive departments engaged in efforts to end human trafficking in an effort to highlight current efforts and draw public support and involvement.

On September 25, 2012, President Obama delivered a speech on the need to strengthen the fight against trafficking as part of the Clinton Global Initiative and signed an executive order strengthening the federal government’s zero-tolerance policy against contracting with organizations involved in any way with human trafficking.

Despite the reported accomplishments, not all efforts by the federal government to combat human trafficking have been successful. In July 2012, a federal judge dismissed the largest case ever by the DOJ involving human trafficking after a grand jury had indicted six businessmen accused of enticing hundreds of Thai nationals to come to the US with promises of jobs and then forcing them to work on farms in Washington and Hawaii. The judge dismissed the case due to the DOJ’s inability to prove the allegations.

Other departments housed in the Executive Branch also work in various capacities to fight human trafficking. The FBI lists human trafficking as a top investigative priority in the Bureau’s civil rights program. In 2012, they opened 306 adult trafficking cases and 363 child trafficking cases. The State Department oversees the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, the single largest governmental effort to combat trafficking and explicitly created by the TVPRA. The office collaborates with various international and domestic agencies in order to track and find those engaged in human trafficking.