Commentary: U.S. must reduce human trafficking

Human trafficking in America has dramatically increased over the past decades. More American girls and young women are being trafficked within the U.S. now than ever.

The U.S. State Department has indicated that up to 17,000 people annually are trafficked into the U.S. from overseas and enslaved. The victims come from Africa, Asia, India, China, Latin America and the former Soviet republics.

American citizens are also becoming victims of human trafficking, and many, particularly American adolescents, are kidnapped from their home states or picked up after running away from home. Young American girls who run away from home are often emotionally and physically coerced by their pimps into participating in sexual activities for money.

The Obama administration views the fight against human trafficking as an important priority. Therefore, Ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca, directed by President Obama, oversees the State Department's efforts to monitor and fight human trafficking. While the U.S. spends billions of dollars in combating drug trafficking, the number of human-trafficking victims continues to increase virtually unchecked.

The U.S. spends around $191 million annually to combat human trafficking, whereas the the country spends more than $700 million annually on combating drug trafficking. Some people might surmise that this is enough funding to combat human trafficking, but the U.S.'s current failure to win the fight illustrates clearly that additional measures have become necessary.

Human-trafficking victims within the United States work as commercial sex slaves, fruit packers, construction workers, gardeners and domestic laborers. They also work in restaurants, factories and sweatshops. Human trafficking and slavery in America generates millions of dollars a year for criminals who use people who are vulnerable, desperate and living in poverty.

Human traffickers often brutalize and terrorize their victims to gain control. Individuals who survive trafficking are faced with confusion, stigma and shame as they struggle to gain control of their lives.

This type of slavery is often cheaper to operate than others because the victims are provided with minimal food, clothing, medicines and shelter.

Victims of domestic slavery are often sold once or twice through a "mom and pop" operation, while others voluntarily arrive in the U.S. with their work permits, not knowing what lies ahead.

Traffickers use physical, verbal and emotional abuse to gain control of their victims' minds and bodies. Often, victims of domestic slavery become dependent on their traffickers and are unable to leave. Victims are subject to a form of bondage in which they do not have the ability to acknowledge they are victims of domestic slavery. Most cases of domestic slavery remain well hidden behind suburban home fronts, resulting in the crime often being overlooked.

Because human trafficking in all forms is often undetected, many traffickers do not get caught, and those who do receive little to no punishment. The lack of serious punishment is remarkable and may contribute to the human-trafficking crime rate continuing to increase. Light punishments for traffickers also explain why victims are reluctant to testify against traffickers, as they fear for their lives.

Victims themselves are often treated as criminals by law enforcement and many do not receive appropriate help. Many advocacy organizations are now urging the U.S. to create and impose stricter laws to prevent human trafficking.

In California, Proposition 35 was passed in November 2012. Proposition 35 increases prison sentences and fines for human trafficking, and requires convicted human traffickers to register as sex offenders. This proposition has already resulted in convicted traffickers' receiving longer sentences for serious crimes. The hope is that Proposition 35 will send a message that human trafficking will not be tolerated.

To end human trafficking and slavery requires commitment and action from every individual living in the U.S. It also requires that individuals be aware of what is human trafficking and how to identify victims.

I strongly urge people to contact their representatives to express their desire for human trafficking law reform or support for House Resolution 906.

Anaheim Hills resident ELIZABETH MORENO is a graduate student in social work at USC.

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