As election day approaches, the polarization of our political climate has been on full display. It’s easy to fall victim to the temptation to lose hope that our increasingly divided electorate will ever be able to reach consensus on many of the most challenging issues faced by our nation. Yet, as Americans, we are united by our passion for justice and have always demonstrated an incredible capacity for putting differences aside to unite in opposition to the victimization and exploitation of the most vulnerable. Nowhere is that better demonstrated than in the response to the evil of human trafficking.
According to a comprehensive study conducted by the University of Texas School of Social Work, in Texas alone, there are approximately 313,000 victims of human trafficking at any given moment. This is a problem that affects us all, and one that requires maximum cooperation among federal, state, and local officials to eradicate.
At the Texas Public Policy Foundation, we recognize that it’s also a problem that has impacts across subject matters, which is why our Right on Immigration and child welfare reform projects are collaborating to tackle this issue head-on. In the U.S., migrants without the proper documentation and children are the two populations most vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking.
In its 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report, the U.S. State Department confirmed that many migrants who go through Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries on their way to the United States become victims of human trafficking either during their journey or following their arrival. Although most migrants start the journey willingly, along the way they are often deceived, coerced, or sold into situations of exploitation. The debt bondage that is part-and-parcel of the human smuggling business is what effectively enables this violation of human rights to persist, on a massive scale, in our land.
We recognize that immigration and border security are issues fraught with partisan controversy and emblematic of our cultural divide—in which it seems consensus can rarely (if ever) be reached. Yet, as we heard the horror stories of thousands of adults and children trapped in the webs of drug-running gangs, prostitution rings, and slave labor, we became convinced that ending the scourge of human trafficking is key to finding common ground for real reform.
Who can favor the perpetuation of a system that results in tens of thousands of lives being lost, destroyed, or degraded by modern-day slavery? Conversely, who can fail to support changes to the U.S. border security and immigration system that serve to end such a crime and bring justice to innocent victims?
Turning off the pipeline to human trafficking must happen at the border. Over the past year, our Border Security Coalition, alongside national border security professionals, has repeatedly validated the need for a fully integrated system of infrastructure, technology, and personnel to accomplish this core mission.
In addition, the widespread abuse of the U.S. asylum system must end. The Trump administration has taken multiple measures to curb asylum fraud, but the problem will not truly be fixed until Congress acts. Specifically, we have recommended amendments to the Trafficking Victims and Protection Act to end the distinction between minors from contiguous and non-contiguous countries (the Central American nations responsible for the most recent influx of children).
Finally, we recommend increased participation by Texas law enforcement in the National Johns Suppression Initiative. Currently, three of the state’s leading law enforcement agencies are participating in this initiative, which focuses on deterring buyers of commercial sex as an alternative to arresting sex workers—who are often transnational trafficking victims.
Cutting off the supply of trafficking victims at the border and holding transnational traffickers accountable for their crimes is a major step toward solving the problem, but it’s not the only step that must be taken. Domestically, a major source of trafficking victims is the child welfare system.
Multiple studies suggest that between 50 and 90 percent of child trafficking victims have had contact with the child welfare system. Shockingly, a child who enters foster care is more than twice as likely to become a trafficking victim.
To stem this tide, Texas must take steps to reduce the number of children who enter foster care. Greater use of community-based family preservation services must be made to not only prevent children from entering the foster care system, but also to reduce the number of Texas children who become victims.
Another key step is changing our criminal justice system’s approach to children who are trafficked. While Texas has begun to make significant strides in utilizing a victim-centered approach, the Penal Code still allows for the prosecution of minors for the crime of prostitution. This perpetuates the false perception that these youth are criminals rather than victims. Instead, Texas should protect these children and their futures by moving away from criminalizing them and instead utilizing the “conduct in need of supervision” status offense. This approach has the added benefit of harmonizing state and federal policy.
The fight against human trafficking is an issue that all Americans can unite behind to show that we are able to take decisive action to solve some of our nation’s most pressing problems.