In May, police busted a human trafficking ring that had smuggled hundreds of women from Bangkok, Thailand, to the U.S. The victims had been brought into multiple U.S. cities, including Washington, Chicago, Houston, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Minneapolis from Jan. 2009 through May 2017.
The women were then forced into prostitution houses and were barred from interacting with the outside world. Many were desperately poor and were told they would receive a better life in the U.S., in exchange for a “bondage debt,” often $40,000 to $60,000. Professional photos were taken of them prior to leaving Thailand and were used by the traffickers to “advertise” the women on various websites. Often, members of the organization urged the victims to receive breast implants to attract sex buyers in the U.S.
Around the world, more than 20 million men, women, and children are victims of forced labor and sex trafficking, according to the International Labour Organization. And the U.S. isn't immune. More than 18,000 people are trafficked into this country each year from over 50 countries, the Department of Homeland Security estimates.
“I think there is a growing awareness that the trafficking that people think happens in other countries, happens right here in the United States,” Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., told the Washington Examiner.
Esty, along with Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y, introduced two pieces of legislation in September to monitor the trucking industry for trafficking and make sure offenders never drive professionally again. Both have bipartisan support and were approved by a voice vote the end of November by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Esty said she is hopeful it can be taken to the House floor shortly.
“I think this is exactly the sort of issue that Congress needs to be working on to help the American people and to show that Congress can do its job,” Esty said.
The first piece of legislation, Combating Human Trafficking in Commercial Vehicles Act, would add a human trafficking prevention coordinator to the Department of Transportation. The legislation also calls for boosting outreach, education, and reporting efforts related to human trafficking from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
“It’s very important to have someone be the point person, someone to be ultimately responsible for the implementation of the program,” Katko told the Washington Examiner. “To have someone that’s specifically dedicated to doing this, is probably long past due.”
Esty said the coordinator would share best practices to combat human trafficking and would help educate the trucking industry. Additionally, the position is designed to be a “focal point” to determine which states are combating human trafficking well and what strategies they are using.
“We often find that there are a lot of good policy initiatives, but the bottom line is trucking, a lot of that is done on the ground. It’s states who are controlling borders, at check points, et cetera,” Esty said. “We want to be sure that there is someone designated within DOT who is not only pushing information out, but also collecting it back in, ensuring what works well.”
Kendis Paris, executive director and co-founder of Truckers Against Trafficking, said the position will serve as an additional resource.
“I think any time you have somebody who is dedicated to this, who is a staffed position, you’re going go get more output,” Paris said. “It’s going to allow the DOT to have a resource that they didn’t have before.”
Esty said part of the reason the legislation focuses on the trucking industry is because truckers are “the eyes and ears on the road.”
“They are in a position to see and be aware,” Esty said. “You know, we’ve had this whole big campaign around terrorism, ‘If you see something, say something.’ In some ways, this is like this for truckers. If you see something, do something, say something. You can help prevent a horrible crime.”
Adrienne Gildea, deputy executive director of Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, noted that people within the trucking industry and who interact with the industry will be better prepared to intervene.
“Since they’re the ones out there every day interacting with the trucks and the trucking community, they are well-positioned to spot the signs of trafficking and empowered as enforcement to intercede,” Gildea said. “Making this training more accessible to them will help them be better prepared to recognize the signs of human trafficking, and they’ll know how to act and who to call and what to do when and if they come across it.”
Both Truckers Against Trafficking and the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance back the legislation.
The second piece of legislation is the No Human Trafficking on Our Roads Act, which would prohibit those who have used a commercial motor vehicle to commit a felony related to human trafficking from ever operating one again.
“You will be unable to ever be able to drive a commercial vehicle,” Esty said. “There’s already a list of prohibited crimes that deprive you of your ability to use a commercial trucking license so this is adding human trafficking to that list, and rightly so."
“It’s akin to what they do already with drug traffickers,” Katko said. “If you’ve been involved in a drug trafficking crime, you can’t have a commercial drivers license.”
Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. introduced their own versions of the bills into the Senate. They were approved unanimously by the full Senate in September, after initially being introduced in July.
“These bills create a common-sense consequence for egregious wrongdoing and serve as a starting point for better recognition and reporting of human trafficking by commercial drivers,” Thune said in a statement in September after the Senate passed both pieces of legislation.
Katko remains optimistic the bills will pass through the House quickly and be taken to President Trump’s desk.
“This might move really quickly,” Katko said. “It has so far.”