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VAUGHAN: DHS Secretary Gives Lip Service to Fighting Human Trafficking

Each January, law enforcement agencies and advocacy groups mark National Human Trafficking Prevention Month to focus public attention on this horrific crime and its devastating effect on victims. The Department of Homeland Security is about to wrap up its annual “Blue Campaign,” which focuses almost entirely on increasing public awareness of trafficking and reporting it to authorities.

This is a laudable effort, but it is tragically undermined by the reality that DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas happens to be one of the most significant enablers of human trafficking. The mass migration crisis triggered by reckless open border policies that Mayorkas put in place has caused incalculable harm not only to American communities and the integrity of our immigration system but also, tragically, to many of the migrants themselves, who are lured into the clutches of traffickers.

For this reason, Mayorkas is now facing impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives for high crimes and misdemeanors, including refusal to comply with the law and breach of public trust.

As a result of the Mayorkas policies, incidents of border-related human trafficking have exploded. Law enforcement agencies nationwide report a significant spike in incidents of labor and commercial sex trafficking involving non-citizens — and particularly cases involving minors.

Historically high numbers of undocumented migrants, enticed by the Biden administration’s policies, are smuggled across the border by transnational criminal organizations. This is facilitated by government agencies and contractors who funnel them through lenient processing with little vetting and then resettle them while turning a blind eye to the abuse and exploitation occurring under their watch.

Just last month, Tennessee investigators busted a commercial sex trafficking ring operating out of a Super 8 Motel in Murfreesboro. The accused ringleader, a 50-year-old Venezuelan woman, enslaved women from South and Central America after enticing them into the United States — an enterprise that would be much more difficult without policies that have allowed tens of thousands of migrants from Venezuela and other countries to enter without visas.

From the start, Mayorkas and his colleagues began dismantling an array of policies that had succeeded in controlling the years-long wave of undocumented migrants exploiting our dysfunctional asylum system and court rulings mandating the release of minors and those arriving with minors into the country.

Most problematic are the policies that virtually guarantee the release of the unaccompanied minor to a sponsor in the United States. More than 100,000 such minors have been released to a sponsor in each of the last three years — more than double any prior year, with the largest number arriving in Texas, Florida and California. Smugglers persuade parents, primarily in Central American countries, into sending their children in pursuit of a “better life,” often resulting in forced labor debt bondage in factories and on farms, or worse.

The federal government has lost track of at least 85,000 of these kids, according to government records, but has failed to change policies, much less embark on an effort to rescue these kids from their exploiters.  The expectation is that state and local governments will step in to help them, but this is overwhelming state child welfare agencies and law enforcement agencies.  

A grand jury investigation in Florida recently revealed that every year the state takes into custody about 400 migrant children who ran away from their federally approved sponsors.

To solve the problem, Congress must update immigration laws and rein in the executive policies that are incentivizing the mass illegal migration of adults and minors, leaving them vulnerable to trafficking. We must create an environment where migrants understand that there is no point in contracting with criminal smuggling organizations or labor traffickers to come here illegally because the result will be to be sent home promptly.

When immigration enforcement is restored, especially at the workplace, and when authorities work together to disrupt the criminal enterprises that exploit vulnerable migrants, then profits for the smugglers and traffickers will dry up. The government agencies will have a much greater ability to deal with a far fewer number of exploitation cases.

For their part, state lawmakers should update anti-trafficking laws to penalize those who profit from the exploitation of migrants — including employers. An expansion of E-Verify and enforcement partnerships with DHS agencies is needed, as are stronger “know-your-customer” laws for financial institutions to address identity theft and the laundering of money payments by smugglers and traffickers.

Preventing border-related human trafficking requires more than just clever hashtags and federal government platitudes. It requires new leadership and initiative at all levels to reverse the disastrous policies that have enabled the traffickers to flourish without fear of consequences.

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PA Senators Learn About the Horrors of Human Trafficking

“You can sell a drug once, but you can sell a child over and over and over again,” said Chantee Vernille with Familylinks. “Please tell your friends and your neighbors that this is something happening in every ZIP code.”

Vernille spoke to the state Senate Policy Majority Committee’s hearing on human trafficking last week. Pennsylvania is considering new laws and increased spending to address the problem.

“It is a multibillion-dollar industry thriving on the vulnerability of its victims, perpetuating the cycle of suffering,” said committee chair Sen. Dan Laughlin (R-Erie). “More than 27 million people around the world endure the appalling abuse of human trafficking and forced labor, including thousands of people right here in the United States. It is a threat to global security, public safety, and human dignity.”

Various forms include sexual exploitation, forced labor, involuntary servitude, and child exploitation, he said.

“Due to the clandestine nature of human trafficking, many cases go unreported,” Laughlin said. January is Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) said, “The trafficking is horrendous. It is horrible. Women and children mainly. Labor and sexual.” One of her bills signed into law last year puts traffickers on the Megan’s List registry. Pennsylvania is the first state to take that step.

She called on the legislature “to get some really strong laws passed. Because if we don’t, who is going to protect these people?”

Executive Deputy Attorney General Michele Kelly Walsh and Chief Deputy Attorney General Heather Castellino both testified before the committee. Castellino is in charge of the new Human Trafficking Section launched by Attorney General Michelle Henry to “address and bolster statewide efforts to effectively investigate and prosecute human trafficking cases and facilitate assistance for victims.”

There were 341 Pennsylvania victims or survivors of sexual trafficking who contacted the human trafficking hotline in 2021. Some 192 cases were identified, with 315 victims. Those cases included 153 sex trafficking cases, 18 forced labor cases, and eight sex and labor trafficking cases.

The victims included 129 adults, 42 minors, 154 females and 27 males. Typical venues for sex trafficking were illicit massage/spa businesses and residence-based commercial sex.

Walsh said the Attorney General’s Office has been prosecuting these cases for more than a decade. But more resources are needed because the cases are “not short term. They require trained investigators, trained prosecutors, and they require time.”

“These cases are not what you see in Hollywood,” she said. “These traffickers prey upon the vulnerable among us, typically young females.”

Victims struggle with drug addiction, homelessness, poverty, and low self-esteem. “They are chosen by these predators for a reason,” said Walsh.

Fred Woodard, director of investigations with Asservo Project, said, “A year ago, we had a young boy taken from his home in the middle of the night and driven halfway across the country.”

A predator groomed the boy through a chatroom on Discord. The Asservo Project is pioneering the use of AI facial recognition to track trafficking victims, he said.

Sidney McCoy, director of advocacy at Shared Hope International, said the group has analyzed legislation and policies in the states, and in 2023, Pennsylvania scored a ‘D.’ The “unjust criminalization” of survivors needs to stop, she said. “We will not simply prosecute our way out of this issue.”

Pennsylvania is one of 30 states that prohibit charging minors for prostitution, acknowledging that “no child engages in commercial sex by choice.”

Victims are sometimes forced into other crimes by their captors, she said. And “vulnerabilities do not end at 18.” She said she believes protection from prosecution needs to be extended to adult victims.

Brad Ortenzi, Zoe International’s regional director, said it had implemented prevention and awareness strategies in Berks and Lancaster Counties along with the district attorney offices. They train people at various agencies to identify victims of human trafficking and to prevent it. They have also taught people at hospitals, hotels, and at homeless shelters.

They match vulnerable children with a Zoe advocate for mentorship for “relational-based prevention.”

“Rarely does a child disclose they’re being trafficked,” he said.

Women who are recently released from prison are vulnerable to traffickers, he said. Zoe has developed a program to educate female inmates about the danger of being recruited into the sex trade once they are released.

John McKown with Truckers Against Trafficking said there are 3 million truck drivers in the U.S. In Pennsylvania, 170,000 truckers have been trained in “what to look for and how to report this horrible crime.”

“Before I was trained, I probably missed an opportunity or two,” he said. “I was in a rest area in Chillicothe, Ohio, taking my hours, and I had this young girl, about 16 years old, knock on my door and ask if I wanted a date. I really didn’t understand. Back then, you thought, ‘Why in the world would somebody be out there at this time of night.’ But now you know. I’m almost positive that she was being trafficked, and I didn’t do anything about it because I didn’t know.”

“Don’t have your head down, look around. If you see something that doesn’t look right, make that call. Call 911 and report this stuff. It does make a difference. Human trafficking is the greatest human rights violation of our time, and traffickers count on apathy and ignorance,” he said.

“I cannot overstate the depravity the victims of human trafficking endure,” Walsh told the committee. “The scourge of human trafficking is prolific across the commonwealth. The victims, they’re mothers, they’re daughters, there are some former military individuals, there are teachers. They could be anybody.”

The National Human Trafficking Hotline is 888-373-7888.

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Illicit Trade Networks Feed Human Trafficking, Officials Say

The COVID-inspired surge in illicit trade — fake pharma, counterfeit products, and stolen goods — has also led to an increase in the underground network’s most insidious profit center: Human trafficking.

The same organized crime organizations that smuggle fentanyl across the southern border and send gangs to rob high-end stores for goods to sell online are also trafficking in people, law enforcement groups say. Some across the border, some groomed over the internet and lured into prostitution.

January is National Human Trafficking Prevention Month. President Joe Biden reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to the cause earlier this month.

“Since human trafficking disproportionately impacts racial and ethnic minorities, women and girls, LGBTQI+ individuals, vulnerable migrants, and other historically marginalized and underserved communities, our mission to combat human trafficking must always be connected to our broader efforts to advance equity and justice across our society,” Biden said.

During a recent summit on illicit trade hosted by United to Safeguard America from Illegal Trade (USA-IT), law enforcement and industry organizations hosted a roundtable on the connections between human trafficking and other forms of illegal trade. Human trafficking generates estimated annual global profits of $150 billion, according to a report by the Department of Homeland Security. An estimated 25 million people worldwide fall victim, with 20 percent of victims in the sex trade.

In 2021, 66 percent of victims in U.S. sex trafficking cases were minors, according to a report published by the Human Trafficking Institute.

“In 2020, Chester County saw one of the worst cases ever of human trafficking involving two young victims who were held against their will and forced to have sex for money. Residents were shocked that it took place in their community. But that’s one of the tragic facts of human trafficking – how it seemingly happens under the radar and victimizes vulnerable individuals,” said Chester County District Attorney Deb Ryan.

“My office got justice for both victims last year by sending the three defendants – Dimas Omar Hernandez, Franklin Rivera-Mendieta, and Josue Sibrian-Sanchez – to prison for lengthy periods of time. The victims’ lives are changed forever, but the sentences allow them to begin to move forward,” Ryan said. “Chester County will never stand for human trafficking. We will vigorously investigate, arrest, and prosecute anyone who traffics another human being and, by doing so, rescue victims.”

The Chester County Commissioners have also declared January as Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Month.

According to the Pennsylvania court system, from 2017 through 2021, 222 human trafficking cases were brought with 876 offenses. Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties were among the counties with the highest numbers of cases.

As a co-founder of the non-profit Awaken — an organization dedicated to assisting women and children victimized by sexual exploitation in Reno, Nev., Melissa Holland said legal prostitution enables the problem of the illicit trade.

“We’re a sex tourism state,” Holland told the USA-IT roundtable. “Traffickers actually love that there’s legalized prostitution in Nevada, and they find out that the laws have already done half the work of grooming for them.”

According to Awaken, Nevada’s illegal sex trade is 63 percent higher than the next highest state, New York. It is also ranked in the top 10 states for trafficked and exploited youth. The Center for Crime and Justice Policy reported in 2017 that sex trafficking in Nevada was 18 percent higher than the national average.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel reported that more than 14,000 citations have been issued to Florida’s 6,669 hotels after violating a 2019 law meant to deter sex trafficking.

And this is not a new trend. Since 2000, traffickers have found 55 percent of their victims online, usually through social media platforms, online chat rooms, dating apps, and classified advertisements.

Late last year, Biden signed the “Countering Human Trafficking Act of 2022” — a bipartisan bill authorizing $14 million for the Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Countering Human Trafficking. The legislation also ensures that the CCHT is staffed with at least 45 employees.

Last year, CCHT helped secure more than 3,600 arrests and 600 convictions. That was a more than 50 percent increase in human trafficking arrests and a more than 75 percent increase in human trafficking convicts from the previous year, the Department of Homeland Security reported.

There was an uptick in sex trafficking activity during the last time Phoenix hosted the Superbowl in 2015, said Kim Grace Sabow, president and CEO of the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association.

“These bad actors are attracted to great destinations, mega-events, and these bad actors are just following the money,” Sabow said.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline is available 24/7. Call 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733.

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