114th Congress Makes Human Trafficking Top Priority

At a House leadership news conference Jan. 27, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California announced a list of bills to combat human trafficking that he expected would pass the House of Representatives by week's end.

"Human trafficking affects so many of the vulnerable throughout the world," said McCarthy, so "we have 12 bills, bipartisan, Republicans and Democrats, to protect the most vulnerable out there."

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He said in the week ahead, the House would be "strong on legislation."

"There are unseen prisons in the world that exist even in towns and cities across our country," said a statement issued by McCarthy's office. "Though few are aware of the severity of the problem, human trafficking affects thousands of people in America alone.

"This week, the House will pass 12 anti-human trafficking bills," the statement said, "to improve the tools available to law enforcement, identify and develop best practices to prevent human trafficking, help victim survivors recover, train government employees on how to properly detect and respond to human trafficking and more."

Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was the sponsor of two of the 12 bills, both of which passed unanimously Jan. 26.

One was the Human Trafficking Prioritization Act, or H.R. 514, and International Megan's Law to Prevent Demand for Child Sex Trafficking, H.R. 515.

H.R. 514 aims to "prioritize the fight against human trafficking within the Department of State, according to congressional intent in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 without increasing the size of the federal government, and for other purposes," according to the wording of the measure.

The 2000 law, said a statement released by Smith's office, was the congressman's "landmark law" because it created the first comprehensive federal law to address human trafficking, with a significant focus on its international dimensions.

H.R. 515 seeks to protect children who may be at risk from roving convicted sexual predators seeking to go abroad in search of victims.

"The bill is named for Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old from Hamilton, New Jersey, in Smith's district who was kidnapped, raped, and brutally murdered in 1994," the statement said. "Megan's assailant was a convicted, repeat sex offender living across the street, unbeknownst to residents in the neighborhood."

Public outrage over the murder, combined with "the hard work by Megan's loving parents," Richard and Maureen Kanka, the New Jersey Legislature passed the original Megan's Law requiring public notification of convicted sex offenders living in a community. Smith's home state was the first in the nation to have such a law.

According to Smith's office, today all 50 states and U.S. territories have a Megan's Law, "an important tool in preventing more children from becoming victims."

Smith praised the new Congress for putting "a high priority on human trafficking," adding that "protecting children from violence and predatory behavior are among the highest duties and responsibilities of government."

An internal Megan's Law would "protect children from child sex tourism by notifying destination countries when convicted pedophiles plan to travel," Smith said.

According to statistics from the Congressional Research Service and the Department of Homeland Security, officials believe more than 20 million women, children and men are victims of human trafficking around the world and roughly 175,000 are believed to be trafficked in the United States each year.

DHS research shows that human trafficking is a "$32 billion per year industry, second only to drug trafficking as the most profitable form of transnational crime."

Congress' focus on the trafficking issue comes at a time when the Catholic Church has put a spotlight on the global human trafficking crisis by declaring the first International Day of Prayer and Awareness against Human Trafficking. It will take place Feb. 8, the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese slave who eventually was freed and became a Canossian nun.

The Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers announced the observance Nov. 25.

On his flight back to Rome from Strasbourg, France, the same day, Pope Francis told reporters: "Slavery is a reality inserted in the social fabric today, and has been for some time: slave labor, the trafficking of persons, the sale of children -- it's a drama. Let's not close our eyes to this. Slavery is a reality today, the exploitation of persons."

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