By Candice April Lown, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid
For the second year, the United States observed National Human Trafficking Awareness Day on January 11. This day serves as an important acknowledgment of the plight of the men, women, and children suffering in slavery both in the United States and around the world.
The true gravity of the situation is difficult to fathom. Between 18,000 and 20,000 men, women, and children are trafficked into this country each year. Human trafficking is the second-most-profitable criminal activity in the world, after drug trafficking, with an estimated $9.5 billion generated annually worldwide.
More than one third of trafficking victims in the United States pass through or work in the state of Texas. This means that we Texans are not doing enough to combat this horrible scourge. But it also means we have a tremendous opportunity to become a national and global leader in the fight against this horrible practice.
Human trafficking is a simple “bait and switch” operation that takes advantage of vulnerable individuals who are seeking new economic opportunities and are willing to believe almost anything to obtain a better life. Shameless opportunists prey on this vulnerability and shower the soon-to-be victims with false promises of high-wage jobs and affluent lifestyles. Then comes the “switch.” The individuals are put to work as domestic laborers with little or no pay, while others are forced to work in the commercial sex industry. Often workers are told that they must tolerate inhumane conditions until they pay off a “debt” owed to the boss or recruiter.
We can become apathetic to victims of human trafficking because of a misconception that the crime affects only foreigners or undocumented aliens. But victims are both citizens of the United States and citizens of other countries. They can be documented or undocumented. They can be moved and trafficked within the United States and across international borders. The common thread is that they are selected by traffickers because they are vulnerable and lack protection from poverty, abuse, and exploitation.
A major hurdle in the fight against human trafficking is that victims are reluctant to come forward and identify themselves. Since many victims are tricked into their trafficking situations, they often blame themselves and do not know that there are laws to protect them and punish traffickers.
This is where nonprofit organizations throughout Texas and the United States play an important role. Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), for example, helps trafficking victims rebuild their lives after their abuse. By focusing on outreach and education, we work to identify victims of trafficking and help them access necessary services and benefits. TRLA also provides training for individuals and agencies that may work with victims including health care workers, law enforcement officials, social workers, churches, and community organizations.
But individuals can also help fight these abuses. Buying fair trade goods supports companies and products that ensure a living wage for the workers and humane working conditions. Becoming more involved with local organizations that fight human trafficking and encouraging other community members or groups to do the same helps raise awareness and increase dialogue on how the issue affects us all. People should also feel comfortable reporting suspected situations of human trafficking to the Department of Health and Human Services Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888. The hotline is prepared to answer calls in a number of languages and will take anonymous tips.
The United States has made major strides in combating human trafficking, but more can be done to effectively utilize our nation’s resources and expertise to end this misery once and for all.
At the beginning of a new year we all make resolutions aimed at improving our own lives. But on National Human Trafficking Awareness Day we can also resolve to improve the lives of others. Human trafficking is an urgent issue facing Texas and one person truly can make a difference.