Regardless of your preferred presidential candidate, the magnitude of an African-American man chosen as the presumptive Democratic nominee is undeniable. Two hundred years after the Slave Trade Act was passed in England and after decades of relentless campaigning by abolitionists led by parliamentarian William Wilberforce, we bear witness to an extraordinary and unprecedented event, a testament to the resolve of the anti-slavery and civil rights movements.
Pity Wilberforce's legacy has not yet extended to countless women trafficked into labor and sexual servitude in our country. On December 4, 2007, the House of Representatives borrowed his name again when it passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act or Wilberforce Act to extend in law the spirit of his vision of ending human trafficking, sometimes referred to as "modern-day slavery." The House's valiant efforts stopped short in the Senate, where Senators Joe Biden and Sam Brownback gutted the Wilberforce Act, with no sound explanations or public negotiations in sight.
Up to 17,500 human beings are trafficked into this country. The majority of these individuals are women and children, who more often than not wind up in the commercial sex industry. Thousands of others are trafficked within our borders, mostly in the sex trade, sometimes in the same city of their birth.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act or TVPA, currently due for reauthorization, was enacted in 2000 to ensure punishment of traffickers and protection of their victims. While the goal was ambitious and the law a good start, the TVPA's implementation in the prosecution of sex trafficking cases has been unimpressive. Under the federal law, a trafficking victim must prove the steep burden of "force, fraud or coercion" in order to seek justice. Most victims of trafficking are lured, enticed, or deceived into servitude. The young woman who answers an ad for a babysitting job, only to be greeted by her traffickers and pimps at Kennedy airport is a classic fact pattern. The force and brutality begins at this onset with the "seasoning" of multiple rapes, beatings, and threats, often deadly, to both herself and her family, until she has no choice but to work in a massage parlor, brothel or strip club. Six or twelve months later when the police may raid these establishments, no locks, chains or guns are needed to maintain a psychologically broken and abused victim in a state of servitude and far will she be from establishing the required proof of "force" or "coercion." Her appearance may not reflect that of a slave in the era of Wilberforce, but servitude nevertheless defines her life. Instead of protection, however, she may face criminal charges of prostitution and threats of deportation, while the TVPA almost guarantees freedom for her pimps and traffickers.
The proof is that only about 100 sex trafficking cases have been successfully prosecuted since the TVPA was passed. Considering the estimated thousands of trafficked individuals victimized in the US every year, this paltry number of prosecutions should be cause for alarm and shame. Far from it. The Department of Justice is proud of its less than stellar record in combating sex trafficking and launched a steadfast and vigorous campaign against the Wilberforce Act.
In order to prosecute sex trafficking cases aggressively, some creative federal prosecutors have been successfully using the Mann Act, a 1910 federal law that bypasses the stringent "force" burden to establish instead that the pimp or trafficker merely "persuaded, induced or enticed" his victim. So then why not simply incorporate the Mann Act language into the TVPA to create a cohesive and strong anti-trafficking legislation and a good model law for states? The Wilberforce Act, in a 405-2 House vote, championed by a broad-based national coalition of left-right, religious, grassroots and feminist organizations concerned about human trafficking, does exactly that.
The Department of Justice's campaign of misinformation supports the notion that the Wilberforce Act would "federalize prostitution," harm prostituted women or would tax its resources to the brink of collapse. None of these arguments are steeped in fact and if they are, coherent supporting arguments are yet to be presented. The deference of a respected senator like Joe Biden to the Department of Justice's opposition to the Wilberforce Act is perplexing and warrants discussion and hearings, for which requests to date have been futile even if the repeated caller to his office is feminist leader Gloria Steinem.
Sex trafficking disproportionately affects women and children and Senator Biden sees himself as a champion of women's rights. Yet the Senate's silence, or worse - seeming indifference - to the thousands of voiceless and powerless women in servitude and debt bondage is deafening. Perhaps too few hear their whispers as to why pimps and traffickers are being protected at the expense of justice and an end to their suffering.