WASHINGTON – Efforts to arrest criminals who force thousands of foreigners into the United States and sell them for sex and labor are improving,witnesses told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday.
But the witnesses also said federal law does not adequately protect victims – the most likely to identify their captors – who fear government punishment,making it difficult for law enforcement officials to identify either.
Criminals force an estimated 15,000 men,women and children into the United States each year under false pretenses,in a practice called human trafficking,said Johnny Sutton,U.S. attorney for the western district of Texas. Some are stolen from their homes; others are sold by their parents.
Sutton was one of a seven-member panel that testified before the Senate Constitution,Civil Rights and Property Rights subcommittee hearing chaired by Sen. John Cornyn,R-Texas.
“My colleagues and I must continue to vigilantly monitor the situation and to consider whether further legislation is necessary to bolster the [Justice] Department's efforts,” Cornyn said.
In the United States,trafficking victims feed a demand for illegal sex and cheap labor. Sometimes that demand is from U.S. consumers,said Joseph Mettimano of World Vision,which works with child victims of illegal human trafficking.
The U.S. government has attempted to alleviate the problem,first with the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000,Sutton said. The law gives victims greater protection and criminals harsher penalties.
When President Bush signed a reauthorization of the act in 2003,it gave victims greater rights,including the right to sue their traffickers in federal court,Sutton said.
Sutton,whose Texas district shares more than 600 miles of border with Mexico,said law has “greatly enhanced” Justice Department efforts to prosecute criminals.
Michael Shelby,U.S. attorney for the southern district of Texas,said his office has prosecuted 110 people for trafficking in the past three years,triple the number in the previous three years.
Seventy-seven of those prosecuted have been convicted or pleaded guilty – “a dramatic increase,” he said.
But,Sutton admitted,the cases are difficult “to investigate and prosecute,with victims typically unwilling or unable to contact the authorities.”
Victims often fear retribution from their captors and hostility from a government that may easily mistake them for illegal immigrants,he said. The government distinguishes between people who come on their own without proper documentation and those who are brought against their will.
Five other members of the panel,representatives of non-governmental organizations,agreed with him.
The victims don't trust public officials and don't know what their rights are,said Mohamed Mattar,of the Protection Project,a legal human rights research group.
Changing federal law to give victims and their families increased protection and access to legal counsel could ameliorate this problem,said Charles Song of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.
Because victims are often hesitant to contact authorities,Sutton said,the “true scope of [trafficking] is unknown.”
Midway through the hearing,a woman in the audience stood and shouted that she was a “victim of this government,” who had been “exploited.” The committee recessed briefly as police escorted her out of the building.