Shine a Light on Human Trafficking

Shine a Light on Human Trafficking

Submitted for publishing as an op-ed to the Houston Chronicle, September 2013.

While there were many important issues debated in the recently concluded 83rd Legislative Session, one that is very important to me and should be to all Texans is the fight against human trafficking.  We shouldn’t overlook the important bipartisan legislative accomplishments that made great strides toward eliminating this form of modern-day slavery.

The Legislature passed no fewer than eight landmark bills aimed at protecting victims of human trafficking and strengthening prosecution of the perpetrators of this heinous crime.

Although many people might think this isn’t a problem close to home, in fact, one study concluded that 25% of the nation’s human trafficking victims are in Texas. And Houston has the unwanted reputation of being a major hub for human trafficking.

Last year, 9.2 percent of all calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline came from Texas—and a majority of those calls originated right here in the Houston area. You might mistake this for an immigration issue. But most of the human trafficking in Texas involves domestic cases.  Although victims are diverse, the typical trafficking victim is an underage, American born, English speaking, Anglo female, according to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.  Make no mistake, human trafficking is slavery. When a girl runs away from home, or is lured by false promises of a better life, then imprisoned in a brothel and tortured if she resists—that’s slavery.

Prior to the 83rd session, I served on the Joint Interim Committee to Study Human Trafficking. At hearings around the state, heart-wrenching stories were heard of enslavement from trafficking survivors, many of whom were forced into prostitution when they were still children. Testimony from experts was instrumental in identifying issues relating to how we detect the crime, how to help and protect human trafficking victims, and how to more effectively prosecute the traffickers.

Much of the human trafficking legislation passed during the last session came about as a direct result of recommendations made by our committee.  I authored Senate Bill 12, which gives prosecutors powerful legal tools to use in cases where minors under the age of 18 are being trafficked for sex. House Bill 8, authored by State Representative Senfronia Thompson- the companion to another bill I co-authored in the Senate- increases prison time for traffickers and also provides important victim protections.

Other legislation I supported helps victims by providing them with the ability to recover actual damages and court costs from online prostitution and human traffickers. Those victims that seek shelter are now assured that the location of the shelter must be kept private, and they are now eligible for reimbursement for relocation under the Crime Victims Compensation Act.

During the last session, we took a major step forward by acknowledging that underage victims of human trafficking are just that—victims.  Now there’s legislation giving juvenile probation departments the ability to create a diversion program with treatment and compassionate services for human trafficking victims, arrested as prostitutes, who don’t belong in the criminal justice system.

Federal legislative efforts are certainly worthy of praise as well.  At a meeting in my Capitol office in January, U.S. Senator John Cornyn and I discussed anti-trafficking legislation that he authored and was subsequently passed by Congress that strengthens federal efforts and state initiatives regarding these issues. Still pending before Congress is the End Sex Trafficking Act of 2013, authored by Senator Cornyn and U.S. Representatives Ted Poe and Kay Granger. It aims to eliminate human trafficking rings by targeting the criminals who purchase sexual acts from the organizations and insures that they are prosecuted as human traffickers.

September is national human trafficking awareness month. There are numerous events this month educating and bringing attention to the horrific life these victims are forced to live.  Most notably, the City of Houston, Houston Police Department and the Sheriff’s department, along with other local officials will kick off a public service campaign called “Shine a Light on Human Trafficking.”  The event will take place on September 24th at 6:30 p.m. on the steps of City Hall.  I plan to participate that evening and hope to see you there.

Rachael Tison