Fighting human trafficking, together

Fighting human trafficking, together
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In the summer of 2000, I sat with senators, members of the House, and congressional staff of both parties around a table in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, hammering out the final details of what eventually became the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). The final draft we crafted followed months of discussions and compromise as we put aside our many philosophical and political differences to address one of the most horrific human rights crimes imaginable.

In the nearly two decades since, the TVPA has been reauthorized with broad bipartisan support four times — an achievement that seems more and more remarkable given Washington’s increasingly partisan environment.

The TVPA has saved lives and helped countless victims of trafficking. It has become the cornerstone anti-trafficking law in the U.S. But the fight to end human trafficking is not over and the TVPA is still as essential now as it was in that conference room in 2000.

This month is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, coming just as the TVPA is once again up for reauthorization. House and Senate leaders have the opportunity to continue their legacy of support for bi-partisan anti-trafficking work by shaping four pieces of bi-partisan legislation into a comprehensive TVPA reauthorization package.

Just how important is the TVPA? If Congress fails to reauthorize this trafficking law, the stability of funding for federal agencies and programs that are critical for preventing human trafficking, providing for protection of survivors, and prosecuting perpetrators will be shaken. At stake is funding that enables efficient, focused coordination among federal, state and local agencies to investigate and prosecute human trafficking crimes like this Washington forced labor case. Other funding supports agencies such as the newly-established Department of Health and Human Services Office on Trafficking in Person, which provides support for trafficking survivors as they escape from their perpetrators, and legal resources to prosecute their trafficking cases.

Authorization of these critical programs establishes anti-trafficking funding as a priority and bolsters the case for maintaining or increasing federal appropriations. Moreover, long-term funding that is specifically authorized for trafficking is more important than ever in today’s environment of sequestration and funding cuts: each budget cycle presents a tremendous challenge to maintain — let alone build — the programs whose resources are dwarfed by the profits traffickers bring in.

But TVPA reauthorization isn’t just about money — it speaks to our moral standing as a nation. And, if Congress fails to pass it soon, there will be troubling international ramifications. The United States’ role as a global leader in the fight against human trafficking will also be undermined, to the detriment of millions of people trapped in modern slavery around the world.

Right now, U.S. diplomats are meeting with countries in the lead-up to the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which ranks countries on their anti-trafficking efforts. This process and the report itself have proven to be tremendous diplomatic tools to encourage progress. Yet, how can we ask other countries to make policy changes and fund implementation of anti-trafficking programs if we can’t even reauthorize the cornerstone U.S. legislation on trafficking?

This potential loss of diplomatic leadership on human trafficking is even more worrying given other gaps in our federal anti-trafficking infrastructure. For example, even with all the work Congress has done to move four bipartisan anti-trafficking bills, the administration has failed to appoint an ambassador to the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP).

The lack of a credible voice that can speak to all forms of human trafficking furthers the perception that the Trump administration is abandoning human rights as a priority. A rash of resignations at the State Department, including just last month when highly-regarded U.S. diplomat Elizabeth Shackelford submitted a pointed resignation letter to Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonBiden's State Department picks are a diplomatic slam dunk President Trump: To know him is to 'No' him Ocasio-Cortez, progressives call on Senate not to confirm lobbyists or executives to future administration posts MORE, demonstrates the risk of failing to fill key human rights related positions like the TIP ambassador.

For nearly 20 years, reauthorization of the TVPA has been a bipartisan priority because our leaders recognized that effective means to fight slavery furthers U.S. interests and serves an as an example for others on this critical issue. That fact remains unchanged, and my hope is that Congress will recognize its passage as the moral imperative that it is.

As we get closer to what promises to be a contentious 2018 election, bipartisanship on any issue will become more difficult, but this is a rare opportunity to prove that we can govern together for good. It is critical that House and Senate leadership act soon to reauthorize the TVPA by passing all four pending pieces of legislation as a single package. As we huddled around that conference room in Dirksen we came together — despite our differences — to help some of the most vulnerable people at home and around the world. We need to come together to help them once again.

David Abramowitz is the managing director of Humanity United, which supports efforts to change the systems that contribute to problems like human trafficking, mass atrocities, and violent conflict. Prior to joining HU, David served as chief counsel to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.