Ending human trafficking will help protect America’s children

We can all agree that human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery that has no place in the 21st century, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable of our society, our children. Every day, innocent children are sold, bought, smuggled and forced to engage in prostitution and pornography, enduring physical and psychological abuse.

Although the issue of human trafficking is often portrayed as an international challenge, the reality is that it is also a domestic one. It is estimated that from 17,500 to 20,000 victims are trafficked into the United States annually, many of them migrant workers from Mexico and Central America.

Unaccompanied alien children are also often victims of trafficking.

These children embark on a dangerous journey, fleeing their countries with the hope of having a better life. However, during their journey they may have their documents stolen or are indebted to a smuggler and become victims of trafficking.

In an effort to guarantee that children apprehended at our border receive the appropriate screening to identify if they have been victims of persecution or trafficking, I joined my congressional colleague Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) on legislation she will soon reintroduce. The Child Trafficking Victims Protection Act will ensure these children are treated humanely and screened by social workers with child welfare expertise.

The number of foreign nationals trafficked into the United States each year is alarming, yet the number of U.S. citizens trafficked within the country is even higher.

Reports show that as many as 2.8 million children run away from their homes each year and are exposed to prostitution and pornography. The Department of Justice estimated that at least 200,000 American children are at risk for trafficking into the sex industry. In order to help bring awareness to this complex issue of domestic child trafficking, on Wednesday I will be co-hosting a bipartisan lunch event that will include testimonies from girl survivors who will share their narratives of exploitation.

Many female members of the House and I will sign the “Our Daughters Are Not For Sale” proclamation, a statement to reaffirm our commitment to protect girls that are vulnerable to this form of modern-day slavery. This year, Congress reauthorized the Trafficking Victims Protection Act that will address the needs of youth who are victims of sex trafficking by extending key federal anti-trafficking programs for the next four years.

Florida’s economic climate is dependent on agriculture and tourism, making it an ideal spot for criminals to commit these types of outrageous human rights violations. In fact, Florida is a region with one of the highest rates of human trafficking in the country. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has been working with businesses to expand a “zero tolerance” campaign against human trafficking throughout the state. Miami-Dade state attorney, Katherine

Fernandez Rundle, who has the largest prosecutor’s office in Florida, has also been working to protect victims and prosecute traffickers through the newly created Human Trafficking Unit, which in February successfully prosecuted its first criminal court case.

As a staunch supporter and advocate of human rights, I commend the work that elected officials and local organizations do to eradicate the sexual exploitation of children in Florida. Last week, Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed into law two pieces of legislation that will help victims of human trafficking return to a normal life while protecting their privacy.

An organization that has been on the front lines of this issue is the Women’s Fund of Miami-Dade. For more than 20 years, it has been devoted to fostering awareness about sexually exploited children through its grantee partner, the Kristi House. Building Empowerment by Stopping Trafficking, a recently established organization in Miami, is also promoting awareness to the community of this horrific human rights abuse issue in our own backyard. With the help of the Department of Justice, St. Thomas University has created the Human Trafficking Academy, which offers training and technical assistance to law enforcement, lawyers and the public.

The reality is that the government cannot combat these horrendous crimes against our children alone. As a community, we have the obligation to fight this crime and protect our children.

In the intervening decade, we have improved the coordination between international, national and local responses. Human trafficking is a sad reality we cannot ignore. This crime is on the rise, but with our combined efforts, we can defeat this horrific human rights abuse. We have to believe that together, we can make a difference. Our children deserve to be free, not bought, sold or smuggled.

Ros-Lehtinen represents Florida’s 27th congressional district, which includes a large portion of Miami-Dade County. She is chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.