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Attorney General Transcript

News Conference Regarding Human Trafficking
January 24, 2002
DOJ Conference Center

ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Good morning.

      Three years ago, 19-year-old Maria Choz began a terrifying ordeal. Jose Tecum kidnapped Maria from her parents' home in Guatemala, smuggled her to his house in Florida, imprisoned her in a spare bedroom. By night, Maria was forced into sexual servitude. By day, she was forced to labor with a tomato-picking crew, bringing her wages to Tecum at the end of her grueling shifts. Maria was robbed of her dignity and imprisoned by a man who put his greed and obsession ahead of her most basic human right to freedom.

      Maria's story stirs all Americans' sense of compassion and humanity, one woman's struggle against the bonds of slavery, not in some faraway land, but right here at home. It's a struggle that shocks our consciences. It offends our values.

      And sadly, Maria's story is not unique. The United States government estimates that 50,000 people, overwhelmingly women and children, are trafficked into this country each year. Today Maria is free, thanks to a coordinated effort by members of various federal, state and local agencies. With Maria's help, Jose Tecum was convicted of kidnapping, involuntary servitude, document fraud, and alien harboring, smuggling and transporting.

      Some members of the team who secured justice for Maria Choz are with me here today, and I'm pleased to acknowledge their presence. They are Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Malloy (sp); Civil Rights Division Attorney Susan French; FBI Special Agent Ed Geiger (sp); INS Agent Juanita Santana; Collier County, Florida, Sheriffs Victims' Advocate Anna Rodrigues (sp); and Civil Rights Division Victim Witness Coordinator Lorna Grenadier (sp).

      I would also like to acknowledge the work of the many victims' advocates groups who worked with us to secure justice for victims of human trafficking. I want to thank you all for your hard work.

      Now, despite this successful conviction, Maria's fate remains uncertain.

      She lives in the United States only on short-term authorization to assist law enforcement officials.

      Other victims of human trafficking, the vast majority of whom are men and women trafficked into the United States for prosecution (sic), domestic service and forced labor on farms or in factories, those individuals are living here under the same uncertain circumstances. They come from all parts of the world, including Russia, Mexico, countries in Africa and Asia. These women and children have helped the U.S. prosecutors investigate and convict the criminals who exploited them, and as those who have helped, they deserve and need the best help we can give in return.

      In March last year, 2001, I announced that the fight against human trafficking would be a top priority of the Justice Department. I issued clear guidelines to federal prosecutors describing the new crimes under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act passed by Congress in the year 2000. I directed more efficient and determined coordination among U.S. attorneys offices and the Civil Rights and Criminal Divisions of the Justice Department.

      In July of last year, together with the State Department, I issued a regulation instruction federal law enforcement, Immigration, and State Department officials to provide victims of these terrible crimes with legal protections and additional support as their cases moved forward. Under those regulations, victims are informed of their rights, provided information about pro bono legal services, and given access to translators, when needed. Most importantly, victims in the care of the United States government are protected from their former captors and other would-be traffickers.

      Today, I am announcing the latest measure to combat human trafficking. This measure is the issuance of regulations implementing the T Visa. This visa, (which) was created by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, is specifically designed for the victims of severe forms of trafficking in persons who cooperate with law enforcement against those responsible for their enslavement. Under the statute, when such victims would suffer, quote, "extreme hardship involving unusual and severe harm, if returned to their home countries," this new visa allows them to remain in the United States. After three years in T Visa status, these victims of human trafficking may apply for permanent residency.


      In addition, subject to some limitations, the regulation allows victims to apply for non-immigrant status for their spouses and children. Victims under the age of 21 may apply for non-immigrant status for their parents, as well -- visas for non-immigrant status.

      As the Department of Justice -- the Civil Rights Division, the Office of Legal Policy -- the Immigration and Naturalization Service and other components work closely together to finalize the implementation of the T visa, I want to commend them for that work. I want to thank assistant attorney-general for civil rights Ralph Boyd, assistant attorney-general for legal policy Viet Dinh and INS commissioner Jim Ziglar, who is represented today by acting commissioner Mike Becraft. I want to thank you for your indispensable efforts to assist victims of human trafficking.

      And once again, I want to recognize the Congress of the United States for enacting the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which I had the opportunity to support as a United States senator. That act authorizes the funding and regulations necessary to make our crusade against human trafficking a success. With such strong congressional support, much progress against human trafficking will be made.

      Finally, I want to express our gratitude to Maria Choz for her courage in speaking out to assist prosecutors. It's my understanding that Maria will apply for the T visa. I recognize that she was extremely helpful to the investigation and the prosecution of the individual who victimized her. Maria serves as an example to all victims of human trafficking. Her courage, combined with today's action, sends the powerful signal that human freedom will be protected in the United States of America and that those who seek to deny human freedom will pay a terrible and a certain price. America will not stand idly by as those who seek to profit from modern-day slavery ignore the humanity of their prisoners and show their disdain for the rule of law. We will defend the rule of law, and we will protect victims of human trafficking.

      It's now my pleasure to sign the regulations.

      I'd be pleased to answer any questions you have.

      Yes, sir.

      Q General Ashcroft, the government's position on John Walker Lindh in the past has been that he was a battlefield detainee and he didn't deserve legal representation, and that, even when he was provided that opportunity, he turned it down.

      Today, his defense lawyers made the point that a 20-year-old American was held for 54 days without any access to a lawyer. And my question is, while that may be legal, why do you think it's fair?

      ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Let me discuss this situation. We've issued a complaint in this case, and the complaint alleges that Walker knowingly and purposefully allied himself with terror; that he chose to embrace fanatics, and his allegiance to them never faltered, not with the knowledge that they had murdered thousands of his countrymen, not with the knowledge that they were engaged in a war with the United States, and not, finally, in the prison uprising the took the life of CIA Agent Johnny Span. At each of the crossroads, Walker faced a choice. And with each choice, he chose to ally himself with terrorists. Drawn to South Asia, Walker to chose to train with terrorists. Trained as a terrorist, Walker chose more advanced instruction from al Qaeda. Having trained with al Qaeda, Walker chose to fight on the front lines with America's enemies.

      Our complaint, based on Walker's own words, is clear: terrorists didn't compel John Walker to join with them. John Walker chose terrorists.

      Walker was blessed to grow up in a country that cherishes freedom -- freedom of speech, religious tolerance, political democracy, equality between men and women -- and yet he chose to reject those values in favor of their antithesis, a regime that publicly and proudly advertised its mission to extinguish freedom, to enslave women, to deny education. John Walker Lindh chose to fight with the Taliban, to train with al Qaeda and to be led away -- to be led by Osama bin Laden.

      Now, our complaint is clear. John Walker chose to join terrorists who wanted to kill Americans. And he chose to waive his right to an attorney, both orally and in writing, before his statement to the FBI.

      Mr. Walker will be held responsible in the courtroom for his choices.

      Yes, sir.

      Q Mr. Ashcroft, Mr. Walker's attorney claims that the government has potentially prejudiced the jury by the kind of statements that you're making now about Walker's choices that he made.

      How do you respond to his complaint that too much is being said about Mr. Walker?

      ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: The complaint filed by the United States of America in this case is the basis for the statements I have just made, and the complaint is part of his right to understand what the allegations of the United States are.

      Yes, sir.

      Q General, back to the regulation, could I -- is there a possibility here of abuse, that someone could just frivolously go to the -- to claim they're being held in slavery and get a -- (inaudible.) What sort of protections are there against this --

      ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well, our system is designed to be administered by talented and skilled individuals who assess the validity of all complaints for all visas. And the granting of visas obviously is conditioned upon the accuracy, truthfulness and good faith of the individuals making application.

      Yes, sir.

      Q Mr. Walker's attorney indicated that his client asked for a lawyer about a week before he gave his statements to the FBI. Are you aware of any such request? And if there was, did he change his mind when he waived his right to counsel?

      ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Well our complaint is clear. John Walker chose to join the terrorists who wanted to kill Americans, and he chose to waive his right to an attorney, both orally and in writing, before his statement to the FBI.

      Mr. Walker will be held responsible for those choices in court.

      Q But are you aware of any request that he made prior to waiving his right?

      ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I'm not going to try and anticipate or talk about all kinds of other circumstances. Our complaint is based upon facts that are alleged clearly in the complaint, that he chose to join the terrorists; and that he made a choice, both orally and in writing, to waive his right to an attorney.

      Q Mr. Ashcroft, are we in this case in sort of uncharted waters? Here you have an American held 54 days, not charged, not given access to counsel -- is that part of the issue that we're confronted with here, that this was a case that's different from any that we've faced before?

      ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: We're eager to adjudicate this complaint in the courtroom, where we believe Mr. Walker will be held responsible for his choices.

      Thank you very much.