Photo Credit: Imagens Evangélicas (CC-By-2.0)
Photo Credit: Imagens Evangélicas (CC-By-2.0)

It often takes people by surprise to learn that human trafficking is a very real problem right here in Iowa. Whereas the Department of Homeland Security reports that millions of victims are trafficked throughout the world for sexual exploitation, forced labor, and other crimes, this issue also hits very close to home. A recent study found that hundreds of young people each and every month are at “high and moderate risk” to becoming victims of sex trafficking and enslavement.

Federal law defines human trafficking to include the commercial sexual exploitation of children under the age of 18 as well as the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining” of adults, by fraud or coercion for labor, services, or commercial sex. One example is “survival sex” in which a minor is forced to sell sex to earn money for basic needs.

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I have worked to raise awareness about this issue and advance reforms that beef up tools, resources and restitution for victims. More work remains to prevent traffickers from victimizing people for profit. These crimes generate billions of dollars in criminal enterprise at the expense of human dignity, innocence, and even life.

Human trafficking has long been considered an “underground” problem. Building awareness throughout schools, neighborhoods and local businesses can make a real difference to shed light on this crime that’s happening right under our noses. Sex trafficking exists among prostitution rings and has been reported in communities with access to major interstates and wherever else the demand takes it. The traffickers have mastered using the Internet as an enormous resource for advertising and providing their criminal enterprise to customers. Staying vigilant and having conversations with families, friends, and neighbors can help prevent a loved one from becoming a victim of human trafficking. According to the U.S. State Department, key red flags to a potential trafficking situation may include signs of physical abuse, submissive or fearful behavior and inability to speak to an individual alone. Iowans in rural and urban areas of the state are needed to help put a stop to this injustice.

I encourage all Iowans to keep your eyes and ears open to help rescue victims and bring criminals to justice. Raising awareness and training people who work on the front lines where trafficking may take place – such as airline crews and hotel staff – also can help law enforcement with detection, prevention, and prosecution. To report suspected trafficking tips or obtain confidential help, contact the 24-hour, toll-free National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888. Again, the hotline is confidential and can manage calls from potential victims, law enforcement, medical professionals, and concerned citizens. Follow your instincts; report something that doesn’t seem right.

Reforms I am advancing in Congress

Human trafficking is considered a “high-profit and low-risk” crime. That means perpetrators believe the profit motive outweighs the risk of getting caught and brought to justice. Policymakers need to identify and implement even stronger solutions that can root out these criminals once and for all. That’s why I’m building on comprehensive strategies to change the “high-profit and low-risk” equation.

In the last Congress, I co-sponsored a bill that was enacted to expedite inclusion of missing children on the national registry. The new federal statute also facilitates the inclusion of a missing child’s photo to improve recovery efforts. This summer, the Senate adopted bipartisan bills I’m leading to improve coordination among law enforcement to bring perpetrators to justice and renew federal resources for more services and restitution for victims and survivors. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (S. 1312), which I sponsored, and Abolish Human Trafficking Act (S. 1311), which I cosponsored, are designed to improve screening and identification of victims.

These Senate-passed measures would encourage training of school personnel, judges, and criminal investigators to help facilitate efforts to identify and respond to victims. The U.S. Secret Service would be allowed to offer investigative and forensic assistance for other law enforcement agencies. And, the Senate-passed bills call for federal data collection to ensure better tracking of human trafficking — an abhorrent crime that takes away one’s freedom and humanity. Victims struggle in the shadows to escape the cycle of violence and enslavement. We need all hands on deck, from the courthouse to the schoolhouse and everywhere in between, to keep our streets and communities safe so that the next generation is free to achieve its dreams and enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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