Shock and sadness resonated across the country when 38 people were found trapped in the back of a sweltering tractor-trailer in the parking lot of a San Antonio Walmart last July. The lack of ventilation, food and water forced victims to breathe through a hole in the trailer wall, leading to ten deaths. All were victims of human trafficking.
This horror is a vivid reminder of this too-often overlooked crime. Human traffickers operate prolific networks that resemble modern-day slavery systems, characterized by a total disregard for human rights. In the state of Texas, our border with Mexico places us at the center of this epidemic. In 2017, Texas saw more reported trafficking cases than every other state in the nation except California.
Particularly startling is traffickers’ use of drugs to coerce and control young women and force their victims into a life of sexual exploitation. The vicious cycle of addiction only compounds the trauma victims experience; after introducing them to drugs, traffickers psychologically and physically control them by exploiting their addiction.
To combat this epidemic, we’ve introduced the bipartisan Protecting Rights of Those Exploited by Coercive Trafficking (PROTECT) Act, which specifically addresses this use of drugs to facilitate trafficking and will protect those who are vulnerable. The PROTECT Act would hold traffickers accountable by making clear that the use of drugs to cause a person to engage in a commercial sex act, or forced labor, constitutes a form of coercion and deserves severe and certain punishment.
When combatting a criminal enterprise as complex and widespread as human trafficking, it is critical that we consider every factor being used to perpetuate it. By ensuring we properly punish those who use illegal substances as a power tool to manipulate and control victims, we are tackling a real and significant piece of this complicated puzzle.
We hope our bill will also serve as a means to raise awareness so Texans can help identify and report criminal activities to law enforcement. Although major strides have been made in this area, there’s always more work to be done.
Just during this Congress alone, there has been important legislation aimed at strengthening criminal punishments, closing loopholes in our existing laws and ensuring that trafficking victims get the justice they deserve. We’ll continue to highlight awareness efforts and ensure our laws will prevent and punish heinous crimes.
Although the PROTECT Act is just one more step forward in our battle, the strong support we’ve already received from victim advocates and law enforcement illustrates that people across this country will never tolerate incidents like the one in that San Antonio parking lot. The dangerous trafficking of human beings isn’t over — yet — but at least we’re fighting back.