January and National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month may be over, but human trafficking happens every day, every year. It’s a criminal justice struggle that continues to dehumanize nearly 27 million people around the world.
Through my work as a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, I’ve toured critical human trafficking hubs across Southeast Asia and met with community and faith-based nongovernmental organizations struggling to confront this brutal crisis. On these visits, I’ve seen firsthand the plight of human trafficking victims sold into domestic servitude, forced labor and prostitution.
Across the world, human trafficking is a pervasive human rights crisis. Yet this atrocious crime is often committed right under our noses, in our own country. Each year, more than 17,000 people are trafficked into the United States, half of which are children, according to the State Department. Our government spends billions of dollars each year fighting slavery and human trafficking through our own borders, but far too many victims are slipping through the cracks.
A startling recent investigation by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General revealed that known human traffickers have exploited American visa programs to bring their victims into the United States. The systematic failures that have allowed human traffickers to exploit loopholes are unacceptable. That’s why I’m taking action to fight this modern-day slave trade in America.
Last month, I crafted a bipartisan piece of legislation that tackles America’s human trafficking crisis. I partnered with Congresswoman Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) and introduced H.R. 4383, the DHS Human Trafficking Prevention Act of 2016, which takes decisive and swift steps to prevent and combat the crisis of human trafficking into the United States. Armed with the lessons of the recent DHS report, we shaped this legislation to eliminate weaknesses in our current human trafficking prevention system.
The DHS Human Trafficking Prevention Act actively addresses the serious gaps in information gathering and sharing processes at the Department of Homeland Security that have allowed human traffickers to take advantage of our own programs and exploit more victims.
Our legislation orders the DHS to issue department-wide guidance for identifying and keeping detailed records of known or convicted human traffickers. Taking it one step further, our bill instructs Homeland Security to implement practices that enhance collaboration and sharing of this information between the different components of the department. This legislation also requires integration of information technology systems used by the DHS to keep these records and improves independent oversight over these systems.
The government agencies tasked with protecting our borders and our domestic security must live up to our standards and take responsibility, along with our fellow members of Congress, to stop the illegal and immoral smuggling of innocent people and children into the United States.
I hope we can come together this year to pass bipartisan legislation to end this scourge of modern-day slavery.
Sanchez represents California’s 46th Congressional District and has served in the House since 1997. She sits on the Armed Services and the Homeland Security committees.
This Op-ed first ran in The Hill on Feb. 23.