How You Can Help Protect Victims of Human Trafficking by Voting in the Next Presidential Election

Marina* was recruited from Ukraine with the promise of a well-paying job and free housing in the United States. But upon her arrival, she found herself in a nightmare. Her traffickers took away her passport, told her that she owed them a debt and forced her to work. She cleaned houses during the day and offices at night. On the weekends, she cooked and cleaned for her traffickers. They paid her only $100 a month for working more than 16 hours a day, seven days a week. Marina's traffickers used gang rape, physical abuse and threats to make her submit. They pulled her hair so hard that she bled and then pushed her down a staircase. They told her they would drown her in the ocean if they caught her trying to run away, and that if she ever left the apartment or called the police, she would be arrested and deported. They also threatened that if she ever escaped, they would traffic her 8-year-old daughter and force her into prostitution.

Marina's story is not unique. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that there are approximately 14,500 to 17,500 human trafficking victims in this country. The numbers are more staggering globally, with an estimated 27 million human trafficking victims worldwide. Eleven percent of these victims are trafficked into the commercial sex industry, while the other 89 percent are, like Marina, forced into labor.

On March 15, as part of his efforts to prevent human trafficking, President Obama convened the annual Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who chaired the event, made it clear that the Obama administration remains committed to preventing human trafficking. She stated that human trafficking is an "affront to our most fundamental values" that affects "men, women and children toil[ing] in bondage." Her statement echoed those of President Obama, who recently said that, from those forced into "labor and debt bondage to [those] forced [into] commercial sexual exploitation and involuntary domestic servitude," the victims of "this ongoing global tragedy are men, women and children." These announcements recognize the plight of labor trafficking victims -- people like Marina who are forced to work in horrendous conditions, subject to physical, psychological and even sexual abuse by their traffickers.

The Obama administration's specific recognition of labor trafficking victims is notable because it stands in stark contrast to the George W. Bush administration, which focused heavily on sex trafficking. President Bush spoke often about wanting to make the fight against sex trafficking a legacy of his presidency, and he frequently conflated human trafficking with prostitution. For example, in a 2003 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, he said, "Each year, [a staggering number] of human beings are bought, sold or forced across the world's borders. Among them are hundreds of thousands of teenage girls, and others as young as five, who fall victim to the sex trade." Absent from his speech was any mention of labor trafficking. The prosecutions undertaken by the Department of Justice during his time in office reveal his disproportionate focus on sex, rather than labor, trafficking. For example, from 2001 to 2004, the ratio of sex trafficking to labor trafficking prosecutions was nearly three to one. This imbalance overlooked the thousands of men, women and children who were victims of labor trafficking during that time.

By contrast, the Obama administration has focused more evenly on labor and sex trafficking. For example, of the 95 trafficking cases prosecuted by the Department of Justice in 2009 and 2010, roughly half (51) have been prosecutions for labor trafficking. These prosecutions better reflect the reality of human trafficking in the United States today than those undertaken during President Bush's time in office, since ten times more people are trafficked into labor than sex.

None of the Republican candidates for the 2012 presidential election have yet taken a strong stance on human trafficking. However, former candidate Rick Santorum frequently stated that he believes there is a "pandemic of porn" in the United States, which "contributes to misogyny and violence against women. [He believes] it is a contributing factor to prostitution and sex trafficking." He proposed to solve these problems by enforcing obscenity laws, which prohibit the distribution of lewd words and pictures. Mitt Romney echoed this sentiment by saying that he also supports "strict enforcement of our nation's obscenity laws." It thus appears that Romney may be poised to follow in President Bush's footsteps.

Yet, if the goal of a human trafficking policy is to prevent human trafficking, it would be wise for the remaining candidates' positions to be driven by actual statistics rather than personal morals. They should look for solutions that actually work. Enforcing obscenity laws will not combat human trafficking because the vast majority of trafficking victims do not work in the pornography industry. It will only consume resources that should be used to aid the victims of all forms of trafficking and to prosecute their traffickers. It will also reverse the progress that President Obama has made by rescuing more labor trafficking victims. Now that Romney is likely to win the Republican Presidential primary, he should think hard about this decision and discuss his position with the public. And we, as voters, should pay attention so we can make an educated decision this November at the ballot box. If we do, we may be a part of the reason for the rescue of people like Marina, who are not being forced into prostitution but are nevertheless suffering brutal abuse, and who would otherwise continue silently "toil[ing] in bondage."

* The names of trafficking victims in this piece are fictional because their real names were protected in court, and are therefore unknown.

The authors are students at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, where they recently completed the Human Trafficking Seminar.