The headlines are often filled with political battles and partisan attacks lobbed from one side to the other. But on May 20, both parties in the House set aside their differences and stood in support of thousands of young girls in our nation. With a recorded vote, the House passed the Justice for Trafficking Victims Act unanimously. Since then, the bill has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee but is awaiting a vote in the full Senate. Now is the time to move this bill forward, and send it to the president for his signature.
Letting the calendar run out doesn’t help “Evelyn,” who was abused by her father and thrown in the foster care system. At the young age of 10, she thought she finally found someone who cared for her, “Joe.” Joe, an older man, told her she was loved, fed her and talked to her. He lured her in and then eventually took her to a hotel room where he beat, drugged and raped her.
Evelyn was forced into a nightmare of emotional and physical abuse. She learned what a pimp was before the age of 12. Her youth was for sale like an object on the Internet. She was taken from hotel to hotel around the country, regularly raped by multiple men. Years later, she was arrested as a prostitute. She was never identified as a victim in need of services and support. Branded a criminal, she was released and sent back to the gross underworld she never wanted to be a part of in the first place.
As hard as it is to imagine in the United States, a first-world country built on freedom, Evelyn is not alone. Each year, at least 100,000 American children are at risk of commercial exploitation, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Their average age is just 13 years old, and the “industry” is valued at $9.8 billion in the U.S. (second to only the illicit drug trade). Do you know one of them? Do you have any idea if trafficking networks exist in your neighborhood mall, nail salon or local restaurant?
Human trafficking isn’t isolated to foreign countries or Hollywood movies. It happens in our own backyards. Some victims are brought into the country from overseas with the promise of a good job, while others are American women and young children lured into this life with the illusion of a loving relationship. Some of the victims are runaways, throwaways and foster youth. Regardless of where the trafficking begins, it’s time to say in America it must end. Modern day slavery will not be tolerated in this country.
We will not turn our backs on this scourge. That is why we introduced the bipartisan Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. Our bill implements a new, robust and aggressive strategy to help combat human trafficking right here in the United States. It targets demand by treating those who pay for sex with minors and other trafficking victims as criminals. The bill also works to treat the victims of trafficking as survivors in need of help — not criminals in need of punishment. In the Senate, the JVTA was introduced by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., It has broad support within the Congress and is endorsed by more than 150 anti-trafficking, law enforcement and child-welfare organizations.
It’s rare in Washington for a bill to have this much bipartisan support. Now is the time for the Senate to follow the House’s lead and pass the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. It’s hard to imagine who could be against it. Help rescue child victims from this slavery. Punish the slave traders and buyers and let the world know our children are not for sale.
Rep. Ted Poe is a Republican from Texas; Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney is a Democrat from New York.