Legislation seeks to toughen penalties for human trafficking

May 15, 2009

Human-trafficking bills would toughen laws
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Thursday, April 5, 2007

Since 2001, more human trafficking victims have been identified in Texas than in any other state.

AUSTIN — Bills in the Texas House and Senate would bolster the state’s ability to fight human trafficking, the dark, underground practice of coercing people to immigrate illegally to trap them into forced labor or sex slavery.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has identified more human trafficking victims in Texas than in any other state since 2001, according to the agency. But anti-trafficking activists are concerned that there have been no prosecutions at the state level. Traffickers are tried in federal court.

Texas lawmakers said they’re trying to put more muscle into the state statute and get more training for local officials.

The bills would, among other things, tweak the language of Texas’ anti-trafficking laws to give prosecutors more firepower.

“We can put an end to this wretched underground world of sex slavery and indentured servitude,” said state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, author of the Senate bills.

One of her bills would make it a crime to coerce people into labor or servitude by threatening to destroy their immigration documents or harm their family. Another would increase the legal age of minors from 17 to 18 for the purpose of prosecuting traffickers who force minors into prostitution.

State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, who has several anti-trafficking bills in the House, said he began focusing on the problem when he saw federal agents make a major human-trafficking bust in his neighborhood in 2002.

Prosecutors said the human-smuggling ring forced Honduran women into prostitution in Fort Worth bars. Six people convicted of smuggling and harboring illegal aliens are serving federal prison sentences.

One of Burnam’s bills would order the Health and Human Services Commission to form a work group to come up with ways to help trafficking victims and create a Web site of all the government and nonprofit groups that can assist them.

Another Burnam bill would have the attorney general train police and sheriffs to fight human trafficking and help victims.

Some of this training is already taking place with federal grants. Hundreds of law enforcement officers gathered in Arlington last month to train in methods to identify and fight human trafficking. The officers, including Fort Worth and Dallas police, make up the North Texas Anti-Trafficking Team, one of 32 such task forces in the country.

Cynthia Magnuson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, said Texas, Florida and California are considered the major human-trafficking gateways into the U.S.

Nearly 19 percent of human-trafficking victims have been found in Texas, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Despite Texas’ unwanted prominence in human trafficking, no one has been prosecuted under anti-trafficking laws the Legislature passed in 2003, said Stephanie Weber, co-chairwoman of the Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition.

The Texas attorney general’s office said there’s no way to confirm that, but Sarah Wolf, a spokeswoman for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said no one in her organization has ever heard of a district attorney in Texas prosecuting anyone under the state’s anti-trafficking statute.

“The penalties are stiffer at the federal level so usually that’s what happens; the feds take those places,” she said.

But Andrea Bertone, executive director of humantrafficking.org, said new state laws are important because they add punch to the fight against trafficking.

“Sometimes, the Department of Justice is really overloaded,” she said. “There are so many resources needed to fight this crime.”

Bertone said 27 states had adopted anti-trafficking laws as of December.

The Texas bills are awaiting committee hearings.