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July 18, 2006

The exaggeration of America's domestic battle against human trafficking

In my opinion, a very important editorial from Tampa Bay Online: Bush's Anti-Slavery Initiative Falters In Quest For Freedom
Two years ago today, President Bush came to Tampa to announce a $30 million initiative against human trafficking, casting our city as a hot spot in the selling of human lives.

Yet two years later, not a single local trafficking case has been made.

Could it be that our human trafficking problem, which caught so many of us by surprise, was overstated? The short answer is yes, though the problem is real.

Still, our analysis shows the administration exaggerated the breadth of the trafficking problem, overstated the crackdown against traffickers and spent millions to help a couple hundred victims.

Since the president's trip, the administration has quietly backed off its startling assessment that more than 17,000 people are brought to the United States every year as modern-day slaves. In a report to Congress last month, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzalez said the number "may be overstated" and a better assessment is underway.
Curiously, his admission has not kept government agencies from repeating the exaggeration.

Similarly, the Justice Department this year boasts that by prosecuting 91 cases in five years, human trafficking prosecutions have increased by "more than 300 percent." It fails to note, however, that prior to 2000, no good federal law existed to prosecute traffickers.

Against this backdrop, the administration has doled out millions of dollars to faith-based and social service providers to serve trafficking victims, never realizing the difficulties they would have in getting victims to come forward. Last year, the government spent $10 million to help 230 people, or roughly $1 million for every 22 victims served, a federal report said.

Perhaps the administration's biggest misstep in the human trafficking initiative has been its failure to get buy-in from front-line police officers. Indeed, some agencies suggest the initiative is a solution in search of a problem. "I would be reluctant to call Hillsborough County a hotbed for human trafficking," Hillsborough Sheriff's Col. Gary Terry said in a recent interview.

The mishandling of this important initiative could lead some to conclude that human trafficking is nothing more than the crime du jour, the government's latest in a litany of heralded directives like drugs, guns, hate crimes and terrorism. In fact, human trafficking is more than a buzzword. It's a real and abhorrent crime taking place all over the nation.

Major cases have been made against traffickers in places like Milwaukee, where a couple faces 65 years in prison for enslaving a Filipino woman; in Los Angeles, where last year a woman was convicted of forcing her Russian niece to work as a prostitute; and in American Samoa, where the owner of a garment factory was given a 40-year prison sentence for treating 200 workers as slaves.

Closer to home, in Lee and Collier counties south of Tampa, dozens of cases have been prosecuted or are under investigation. Young girls have been rescued from sexual slavery and immigrant workers saved from exploitation. In one case, smugglers were charging illegal migrants $2,000 each for a van ride from Ruskin to Homestead.

U.S. Attorney Paul Perez, whose Middle District of Florida spans a swath of the state where economic and social conditions are ripe for trafficking, is refreshingly blunt when he says he is frustrated by the reluctance of some law enforcement agencies to acknowledge the crime.

"The cynical side of me says, where's these people's constituency?" Perez said. "When you attack guns or drugs, you're playing up to a constituency. … Where's the constituency here when the victims and perpetrators can't even vote?"
Good point!
On behalf of those with no public voice, the president should revive his flagging initiative and make this the modern abolitionist movement he envisioned. The government should coordinate a better response, while spending no more than it really needs.

And to restore public confidence, the people who trumpeted inaccurate numbers should be held accountable. It's horrible enough to hear that people are enslaved here. The problem does not need to be exaggerated.

For those who think human trafficking is not real, consider this account from Anna Rodriguez of Bonita Springs, founder of the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

A young girl kept as a sex slave in southwest Florida recently was rescued from her trafficker, by whom she'd had a baby. When the infant was examined, the trafficker's initials were found branded on the baby's back.

"No one knows what these people go through," Rodriguez said.

We do now. The question now is what are we going to do about it?

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