WASHINGTON-While all eyes were on the auto bailout debate last week, Congress passed a bill to provide federal aid to victims of trafficking both in the United States and abroad, with provisions that downplay the role of law enforcement with trafficking victims.
A 2004 Department of Justice study estimated that between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked in the United States annually, and 600,000 to 800,000 worldwide.
The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act has been renewed now three times in Congress since it was first introduced in 2000, and has had the support of anti-trafficking groups like International Justice Mission (IJM) as well as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. In the Senate the bill has been championed by the vice president-elect, Joe Biden, D-Del., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan. In the House, Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and the late Tom Lantos, D-Calif., helped lead the way. Since the introduction of the legislation, prosecution of traffickers has increased sixfold, according to the Department of Justice.
The bill, which covers appropriations for anti-trafficking efforts from 2008 to 2011, now awaits the president's signature.
Its passage this session indicates that lawmakers consider anti-trafficking efforts a high priority, said Holly Burkhalter of IJM.
"When Congress adjourned for the elections in October without resolving differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, I really was pessimistic that the legislation could be completed before the new administration took office," said Burkhalter in a statement.
The legislation, after going through the Senate Judiciary Committee, has a new twist from previous years. Since so many trafficking victims are minors and aliens, the committee added extra protection for minor aliens to be handled quietly by one department, instead of the usual assortment of federal agencies.
The clause would give the Department of Health and Human Services exclusive oversight of the eligibility of illegal minors to receive federal aid and remain in the country. Now HHS will inform the departments of Justice and Homeland Security when they make decisions about illegal minor victims, essentially distancing law enforcement from them.
Furthermore, the secretary of HHS "may not require that the child cooperate with law enforcement as a condition for receiving such letter of eligibility," the bill says.
IJM explains on its Web site that many victims of trafficking who are aliens in the United States are fearful of law enforcement officials, so this provision helps victims overcome their fear and seek help.
Some conservative experts, though supportive of the bill, are concerned that this addition could turn every minor's case into victim advocacy, when law enforcement may have a legitimate role to play in some circumstances.
The DOJ, which supported earlier versions of the bill, sent a letter to the Senate and House Judiciary committees expressing concern about the clause, saying the attorney general should be involved in decisions about whether illegal minors, victims of trafficking included, can remain in the country. On Friday, DOJ spokespeople refused to comment on the final legislation that passed, saying the department was still in the process of reviewing it.
In an interview, IJM's Burkhalter said that the organization doesn't take positions on immigration but that trafficking victims should receive the "very most generous" provisions in terms of social services and immigration.
This legislation in particular, she added, is the best human-rights laws she has seen in 30 years, because of the structure and oversight it includes.
"Legislation only starts with the black words on white paper," Burkhalter said. "It requires a lot of scrutiny and a lot of cranky back and forth."
The trafficking victims bill has been subject to nearly two years of scrutiny in congressional committees. Despite criticisms of some of the provisions included, many agree it is another victory in the fight against trafficking.