Two decades after the enactment of a landmark anti-trafficking law, the threat has evolved during the current pandemic—and so too, must the response, says the congressman who wrote the law.
“We’ve got to make sure that there’s a continued prioritization of all the law enforcement—from the cop on the beat, to the prosecutors, to the U.S. attorneys—to make this a priority,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), author of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, in an interview with CNA.
Smith is also the special representative on human trafficking issues to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, an international body of legislators from 57 member states that promotes security through dialogue.
During the new coronavirus pandemic, he warned, children are more vulnerable than before to being trafficked, and survivors are at greater risk of being re-trafficked.
“In talking to the NGOs, the Catholic Church, others, they know that there has been a very serious increase—and law enforcement backs this up as well—in grooming of children online,” Smith said.
With children at home more often during lockdowns or partial lockdowns, predators try to contact them online. “That becomes a process of exploitation that ends with rape and other kinds of heinous activity,” Smith said.
“These people who do it know how to manipulate the mind of a child.”
Also as a result of the pandemic, trafficking survivors may have less access to the help they need if the operations of NGOs and charities are restricted because of public health orders, or a lack of donations. Shelters or employment programs might not be available. Jobs that once helped victims get back on their feet may not exist in the current economic climate.
“They’re very susceptible for being re-trafficked,” Smith said of survivors.
Smith authored the TVPA, which was signed into law 20 years ago on Oct. 28. Although the Mann Act had prohibited prostitution and unlawful sexual behavior across state or country borders, there were “no prosecutions whatsoever” for human trafficking at the time before the TVPA, Smith said.
The public was also not fully aware of the scope of the problem. Smith recalled talking to U.S. attorneys about trafficking, but they would think he was referring to drug trafficking.
Some people thought the issue of sex trafficking to be just a “vice,” without considering the abuses inflicted upon women and children. There was a “very antagonistic view toward prostitutes and prostitution,” Smith said, “not realizing, I believe, that so many of those women are coerced into that profession.”
His law not only beefed up prosecution of traffickers—establishing punitive sentences up to life imprisonment, and asset confiscation—but effected a “sea change” in how trafficking victims were treated under the law, he said.
Under the TVPA, minors with at least one commercial sex act were considered sex trafficking victims and could not be prosecuted. If “force, fraud, or coercion” against an adult were established in a trafficking case, those adult victims could not be prosecuted either.
Furthermore, the law had a comprehensive approach to fighting trafficking. It both punished perpetrators, and set up what Smith calls a “whole-of-government” strategy including funding protection for victims, and prevention programs.
It reauthorized the Violence Against Woman Act, for instance, and doubled funding under the law for women’s shelters, rehab programs, and housing and other initiatives for battered and abused women. It set up a national hotline for victims to report and get connected to help, and created a whole new asylum category, the “T Visa,” for trafficking survivors to come to the U.S. temporarily.
With trafficking occurring across international borders, the TVPA established an office at the State Department for monitoring other countries’ records on fighting trafficking, and holding them accountable.
In the 20 years since the law’s enactment, there have been thousands of trafficking prosecutions—including some recent notable ones.
Charges made in 2019 against investment banker Jeffrey Epstein were under Smith’s TVPA. “Smallville” actress Allison Mack and NXIVM’s Keith Raniere were charged under the TVPA for running a sex trafficking ring.
“We could always do better, no doubt about it,” Smith said of increasing prosecutions, “but the key is a serious and sustained effort to, wherever there is a pimp that’s cruelly mistreating a woman, we go after him. And we stop him. And we put him behind bars for a very, very long periods of time.”
On Oct. 27, Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison for sex trafficking and racketeering.
The next day, deputy attorney general Jeffrey Rosen looked back on the enactment of the TVPA on its 20th anniversary.
“It is important to look back at the coordinated efforts that produced the TVPA,” he said, “a collaboration of survivors, civil society advocates from faith-based groups and across the political spectrum, and policymakers.”
That collaboration, Smith told CNA, was critical in the fight against trafficking the past two decades. Federal agencies have come together with leaders of faith communities and NGOs, and local and state prosecutors and law enforcement “to all get on the same page for combatting this.”
“That approach, I think, still is a good one,” he said.