Law enforcement officials today tackled the national security implications of human trafficking and reviewed federal and local responses to the crisis that illegally brings about 17,500 people into the United States each year.
While human trafficking is primarily a human rights issue, lawmakers were keen to press its national security implications as well.
"Human trafficking has become a leading source of income for the organized crime syndicates that are inciting violence along the [Mexican] border," Chairwoman Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) said (pdf) before the hearing of the House Homeland Security Subcommitte on Border, Maritime, and Global Counterterrorism.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, spoke (pdf) about the need to shut down human trafficking routes for security as well as human rights reasons.
"The same transnational organizations that traffic in people may also traffic narcotics or weapons across our borders," he said. "Some of the same routes used to traffic persons into the U.S. may be used to smuggle terrorists or their weapons into the country."
Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (pdf) and subsequent reauthorizations, a federal response that partners closely with countries, states, localities, and nonprofit organizations has arisen to fight human trafficking, said Kumar C. Kibble (pdf), deputy director of investigations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the lead investigative agency on human trafficking.
Last year, ICE initiatied 432 human trafficking investigations, which led to 189 arrests, 126 indictments, and 126 convictions, and represented a 12 percent increase over 2007. ICE runs the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center, a fusion center for other federal agencies and departments with a role in stopping human traffickers, as well as partners with other law enforcement agencies and nongovernmental organizations through Human Trafficking Task Forces run out of the Department of Justice.
To ensure that investigations begin where crimes start, ICE has 50 offices in more than 39 countries. The agency has also provided outreach and training to more than 27,900 staffers from approximately 1,200 nongovernmental organizations and 12,100 law enforcement agencies worldwide under its ICE Trafficking in Persons Strategies.
To leverage the American public, ICE has sponsored the In Plain Sight Billboard Campaign in cities across America, which instructs people to call a tipline if they suspect human trafficking is going on around them.
Victims of human trafficking also feature prominently into ICE's mission.
"The testimony of victims is critical to successful prosecutions," Kibble said. "Victims are our best evidence of the crime."
But Kibble noted that victims are not evidentiary means to a prosecutorial end.
Working with Citizenship and Immigration Services, ICE helps victims of human trafficking victims receive non-immigration visas, such as the T visa, that allow them to stay in the United States until recovery. It also opens the door to lawful permanent resident status, which protects victims returning to countries where they've been abused.
"We believe the T visa and its protection is a major feature of U.S. law which permits victims to remain in the United States and not be sent back to traffickers in their home country," said Anastasia K. Brown (pdf), director of the refugee programs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
ICE also works with the Department of Health and Human Services and its partners to provide support to victims of human trafficking. Victims can suffer from a range of injuries, ranging from physical abuse to post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Citing numbers from the United Nations, Kibble said human trafficking is a multibillion-dollar-a-year business, while Brown reports that more than 700,000 people a year are trafficked in or across international boundaries.
"Many of these victims are lured from their homes with promises of employment," Kibble said. "Instead, they are forced or coerced into involuntary servitude, migrant farming, sweatshops, and other exploitative labor in addition to the commercial sex industry."