Church a ‘first responder’ to human trafficking

Stronger penalties for perpetrators and protections for victims are key components of legislation Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law April 22 to fight human trafficking.

Cindy McCain, the wife of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and co-chair of the state’s anti-trafficking task force, called their efforts “on the cutting edge of what’s going on with this issue.”

“Our state is going to be much safer,” she said at a news conference. “These guys aren’t going to be able to land here and get away with this.”

The new law was celebrated by the Diocese of Phoenix’s Catholic Charities Community Services, which offers a comprehensive program for trafficking victims and participated in task force focus groups.

“It reinforces what we’ve been trying to educate the public about for years,” said Tamara Hartman, senior program director of DIGNITY, Catholic Charities’ anti-trafficking program.

Catholic efforts

The Church has been at the forefront of efforts to end human trafficking in the United States and abroad. Pope Francis has repeatedly condemned the crime, calling it “an open wound on the body of contemporary society,” and has hosted two conferences at the Vatican addressing it. In March, the Holy See announced the interfaith Global Freedom Network, which aims to end trafficking by 2020.

In the United States, more than 40 Catholic Charities agencies have programs to assist trafficking victims and several sit on state anti-trafficking task forces, said Father Larry Snyder, Catholic Charities USA president. The agency network is among members and partners within the Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking (CCOAHT). Coordinated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the decade-old coalition’s work includes education, victim assistance and policy advocacy at the state and federal levels.

In April, Nathalie Lummert, special programs director in the USCCB’s Department of Migration and Refugee Services, testified before Congress to the Church’s efforts.

“The Church, through its work in the U.S. and internationally, is a natural and traditional first responder in this fight against the scourge of trafficking,” she told them. She pointed to its social teaching; global and local presence through parishes, dioceses and agencies; and material resources.

“While we see the effort as a partnership with the U.S. government and other governments around the world, we would be performing this work regardless,” she added, “particularly because of the moral gravity of the issue and the ongoing suffering of its victims.”

Scope of problem

The U.S. State Department defines human trafficking as “the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud or coercion.” It may include the movement of people — as “trafficking” suggests — but not necessarily.

The State Department estimates that as many as 27 million people worldwide are victims, forced into the sex trade, domestic work and farmwork, commercial fishing, sweatshops and other labor.

It is often called “modern slavery,” where traffickers use fear, not chains, to bind their victims.

People are trafficked in urban and rural communities throughout the U.S., Lummert said. The Arizona task force found that most perpetrators and victims in its state are citizens, although immigrants are especially vulnerable worldwide.

States toughen laws

State laws vary, but legislatures have taken significant strides in recent years to address trafficking. Polaris Project, a national anti-trafficking organization, marked progress in 39 states last year in an annual assessment. As of July 2013, it judged 32 states to have “significant” laws addressing human trafficking, up from 12 in 2011.

The Polaris Project gave perfect ratings to Washington and New Jersey, the latter of which passed comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation in 2013. It rated only one state, South Dakota, as failing to make “minimal efforts to enact a basic legal framework to combat human trafficking.”

Shared Hope, a national organization that focuses on sex trafficking, grades states from “A” to “F” on anti-trafficking efforts. Under its assessment, several states receive failing grades, but it concurs with Polaris that state legislatures took important steps to address the issue last year.

Arizona is the only state to have passed significant anti-trafficking legislation since the 2013 analyses, but measures are pending elsewhere.

Robert F. Gilligan, president of the National Association of State Catholic Conference Directors, and executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, said most state conferences, which advocate on behalf of their bishops, have actively supported anti-trafficking legislation. Unlike many laws for which they lobby, anti-human trafficking legislation is largely bipartisan; the Arizona law passed both legislative chambers unanimously.

There are also bipartisan efforts underway in Congress. In late May, the House of Representatives passed five pieces of anti-trafficking legislation after Boko Haram’s kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls brought new awareness to trafficking concerns.

Like Arizona’s law, one of the pending federal measures requires trafficked children to be treated as victims, not criminals, by law enforcement.

The other federal measures seek to protect trafficked children in foster care, federally criminalize online advertising of child victims, require the U.S. to report to foreign officials when pedophiles travel abroad and increase penalties for perpetrators.

Polaris Project called the legislation “a step in the right direction,” but wants to see the measures extend to labor trafficking victims.

Education key

Advocates from Covenant House, an organization that helps homeless and runaway youth, also applauds Congress’ efforts, but emphasized that victim protections should extend to trafficked adults, many of whom became victims as children. They also want a greater emphasis on prevention.

“You’re not going to be able to arrest your way out of trafficking,” said Tina Kelley, a Covenant House writer who interviewed sex trafficking victims for a recent book.

The USCCB hopes new education and awareness initiatives can help stop sex and labor trafficking before it starts by teaching immigrant communities and other Catholics to identify current victims and those at risk.

Victim advocates also seek public funding for resources to help victims find housing and jobs and expunge criminal records. In cases involving minors, many advocates seek criminal penalties that do not hinge on the victim’s age.

Lummert expects the next wave of legislative initiatives to focus on supply chains, such as those bringing foreign-caught fish to U.S. markets. Consumers unknowingly contribute to the trafficking market through the goods they buy, she said, a point Pope Francis made in “Evangelii Gaudium.” CCOAHT has named “ethical consumerism” a priority issue as they continue their anti-trafficking advocacy.

Maria Wiering writes from Maryland.