National Conference on Trafficking in Persons
Dinner Keynote Address
R. Alexander Acosta
Assistant Attorney General
Civil Rights Division
U.S. Department of Justice
Tampa Bay, Florida
July 15, 2004 *
Thank you Deborah for that introduction and for all that you and your staff did to organize this event.
And, thank you all for coming here. As the Attorney General often tells us: “Thank you for working.”
I see many investigators and prosecutors in the room. Thank you for spending day in and day out on the rigors of investigations and on the meticulous details that lead to successful prosecutions.
I see many community- and faith-based service providers here also. Thank you as well for the dedication and commitment you give to efforts to rescue and restore trafficking victims.
II. The Face of Modern-Day Slavery.
Let me spend a few moments describing what it is from which we are rescuing these victims.
“Human Trafficking,” you have been told, involves the acquisition or holding of human beings, through the use or threat of force, fraud or coercion, typically for the purpose of sexual exploitation or for forced labor, or both.
But this rather technical definition fails to capture the depth of human suffering that lies at the root of this horrible crime. Real life examples strike much closer to the heart.
When I think about human trafficking, I often think of the Cadena case, which I briefly described in the video some of you saw earlier. Some of you may have heard me talk about this before, but it bears repeating.
There is a photograph that we have from that case. The photograph shows a small room, the size of a twin bed. It is separated from the rest of the house by a ragged blanket hung as a curtain.
A victim in the case - a young girl no more than the age of 14 - slept there.
This girl was smuggled into this country by men who no doubt had promised her a better life. Instead, these criminals stripped her of her freedom, of her dignity, of her innocence.
These criminals held this girl – a captive - in that small room.
There in that room, she was forced to have sex with up to 30 men per day.
And afterwards, she was made to sleep in that very same bed.
And this happened every night.
Up to thirty rapes per day. Day, after day, after day.
This is a powerful image. But there's more.
By the bed is a small nightstand. The nightstand has two items.
One is a teddy bear. This was the girl's only possession. She told us later that she kept it to remind her of her childhood. She was barely 14 years old, but she recognized that her childhood was lost.
The other item on the nightstand was a roll of paper towels, the purpose of which is self-evident.
That is Human Trafficking. It is no less than modern-day slavery.
It is evil. It is hideous.
It is repugnant. It is depraved.
It is in direct opposition to everything our nation and our laws represent. Our Constitution, provides in no uncertain terms that: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude . . . shall exist within the United States. . . .” Yet it does.
President George W. Bush has made clear his commitment to fight this evil. Before the United Nations, President Bush called upon the world to:
show new energy in fighting back an old evil. Nearly two centuries after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, and more than a century after slavery was officially ended in its last strongholds, the trade in human beings for any purpose must not be allowed to thrive in our time.
Our Attorney General, likewise, has made a clear and unequivocal commitment to combat human trafficking.
Human trafficking is an affront to human dignity. The Department of Justice is determined not to stand idly by while the toll in human suffering mounts. Human trafficking victims often are too young, too frightened, too trapped in their circumstances to speak for themselves.
Our job at the Department is “to be the victims' voice, to lessen the suffering, to prosecute those who commit these crimes to the fullest extent of the law.”
III. Prosecuting Traffickers.
And prosecuting those who commit these hideous crimes is precisely what we have done, like no other time in our history.
President George W. Bush's administration has dedicated substantial resources to the prosecutions of human traffickers. And results have followed.
Since January 2001, the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division, working with United States Attorneys' Offices, has charged criminally 150 human traffickers. This is more than triple the number charged over the prior three-year period.
These prosecutions have met with great success. We thus far have achieved a 100% conviction rate – a figure that stands as a testament to the work and expertise of the men and women who investigate and prosecute trafficking cases.
And, we expect the number of cases to increase. Currently, we have 168 open investigations.
But while our prosecutions have tripled, we need to do more . This is only the beginning. We need to develop a sustainable teamwork to work together in the manner that is most productive and efficient.
It is not only about prosecutions. It is about protection. It is about prevention. That is precisely why we are here. We are here because:
We have prosecuted over 150 traffickers , but we must prosecute more.
We have protected hundreds , but we must protect and assist more.
We have made strides in prevention , but we must prevent more.
President George W. Bush has asked us to be aggressive on all fronts.
We - all of us in this room - are keenly aware that we cannot wait for the trafficking victims to find us. To be aggressive, w e must find them .
Trafficking victims are not likely to pick up the telephone and call the FBI or the Department of Justice. Victims of trafficking are fearful. They are disoriented. Victims are far from their country. They are far from their family. They have no local contacts or friends. Victims typically don't speak the language. They are here without documentation. Victims are not going to call us.
We must be proactive in seeking out both the victims and the criminal enterprises that victimize them. And once we rescue these victims, we must help restore their life, their dignity, their sense of self-worth.
IV. Multi-Disciplinary Task Forces: The Importance of Partnerships with
Local Law Enforcement and Service Providers
That is why we have come together here in Tampa, and that is why we are coming together in communities across our nation, forming local Task Forces to fight human trafficking.
These Task Forces embody our multi-disciplinary, victim-centered approach. Our Task Forces add to our Washington-based law enforcement resources the intelligence and expertise
of local immigration agents,
of local law enforcement, and
of local community- and faith-based service providers.
These Task Forces recognize that local authorities, often more than federal officials, are in the best position to find trafficking victims. These Task Forces, proceed from the knowledge that local authorities, more then we, know where in their communities trafficking takes place. They, more than we, are in a position to encounter and identify trafficking victims in the field.
In a nutshell, our Task Forces take the battle into those dark places where victims are exploited.
We already have established Task Forces in Tampa, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and most recently, Northern Virginia. By year's end we anticipate rolling out more than a dozen additional Task Forces.
Let me focus a moment on local law enforcement. There is no way I can over emphasize how critical the work of local law enforcement is to our efforts. Local officials and local service providers must be our partners in our efforts to find more victims and prosecute more traffickers.
A great example of the fruits of our cooperative approach is the Soto case, which was referred to in the video. The Soto defendants held captive women as young as 19. They were held at houses around the Rio Grande Valley, forced to work as housekeepers by day, and raped and beaten at night . During the ordeal, two of the women were stripped, gang-raped, ordered killed, and then thrown into a canal.
A local family found these two women in the ditch. That is when local law enforcement stepped in. That is when training kicked in. That is when our collaborative approach paid off.
Instead of finding “two undocumented individuals who did not speak the language and who were prime candidates for deportation,” local law enforcement recognized “two potential trafficking victims, in need of assistance and health services.” This is a critical distinction.
These victims led Investigator Mora to the safe house where the other two victims were being kept. As you saw in the video, when Investigator Mora found these women, he found them in a state of fear personified.
These victims were so afraid that they did not even want to admit that there was anything wrong, that any danger existed. But Mora knew better, he did not just stop his investigation. He was pro-active. He had been well trained. He continued to question. Eventually, each victim broke down in tears, releasing the anguish created by the repeated gang rapes and the beatings.
Prosecutors from the Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney's Office in the Southern District of Texas secured convictions of all six defendants. Armando Soto received 10 years' imprisonment. Martin Cortez was sentenced to 14 years. The ring leader, Juan Carlos Soto was sentenced to 20 years' incarceration.
These criminals will not be able to harm anyone again for a long, long, time.
Even more importantly, these victims were rescued from a sub-human existence in the vile trade of trafficking.
We should all thank local law enforcement, like the Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office in South Texas, for their commitment to our partnership.
V. Protecting Victims
Our prosecutors at the Department of Justice have an impressive record of convictions on trafficking charges. But convictions do not heal fully the pains and emotional scars inflicted on these victims.
How can a girl that has been raped up to 30 times per day fully recover?
These victims need our help. They need our protection. The needs of the victim must take high priority. We work – and must continue to work -- with service providers to ensure that the victims of trafficking are kept safe. This is the right thing to do, both morally, and from a law enforcement perspective. By helping victims, we help them to help us in our continuing prosecution efforts.
The rest of the story in the Soto case is that the victims are now safe and receiving help from NGOs who are grantees of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Justice Department's Office for Victims of Crime. With the assistance of the Justice Department's law enforcement certification, they are all in the process of obtaining T-Visas.
And that truly is the rest, and most important part of the story.
True rescue means providing victims with the assistance they need to rebuild and recapture their lives. For this reason, the Justice Department requires that each of our prosecutors and investigators use what we call a victim-centered approach.
Immediately after we uncover a trafficking crime, Department of Justice victim-witness coordinators, like our own Lorna Grenadier, help place the victims in a shelter. Lorna, thank you very much for your work.
We work with the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services to obtain Continued Presence and “T-Visas” for these victims. As I alluded to earlier, a “T-Visa” permits victims to stay in America and to apply for regular status.
We likewise work with the Department of Health and Human Services to obtain additional services for these victims. We ensure that these victims receive medical and dental care, screening for STDs, and emergency food and shelter. And we help place the victims with NGOs, funded in part by the federal government.
Our charge, given to us by President George W. Bush, is to help these victims begin to rebuild their lives.
In short, it is the stated policy of the Department of Justice that individuals who have been subjected to a severe form of trafficking are victims in every sense of the word. They are victims. And they must be treated as such.
As the law makes clear, any trafficking victim who (1) is willing to assist in the investigation and prosecution of severe forms of trafficking, and (2) has either (a) been certified by the Attorney General for continuing presence, or (b) has made a bona fide application for a T-visa will qualify for refugee status, and obtain the benefits Congress provided to them.
The Civil Rights Division's record of victim protection has been strong.
To date, Division prosecutors have helped with the granting of 490 requests for continued presence. We have also been instrumental in assisting hundreds of victims obtain T-visas by providing the required certification. Overall, the Civil Rights Division and other law enforcement agencies have helped 584 trafficking victims from 34 countries to secure refugee-type benefits under the law.
And like I said earlier, while the Department's record is strong, it is only a beginning.
To ensure that there is no slippage in our protection of victims, the Civil Rights Division has established a strict policy that if a Civil Rights Division attorney ever determines that a victim should not be recommended for continued presence or a T-Visa certification, that declination decision must be approved by the Deputy Assistant Attorney General overseeing trafficking matters.
Our goal is to work with our service-provider partners, to best help our victims obtain the help they need, and the help to which they are entitled by law.
We as law enforcement cannot succeed without the help of our service providers. And I thank all our service providers for the critical help they offer victims.
VI. Preventing Trafficking
Finally, we must also all work together to eradicate trafficking in the long-run by dedicating efforts to prevention .
We must make the public aware that a modern-day slave trade persists in our world. The Department of State works hard to do this internationally.
Here, in the United States, the Department of Health and Human Services has launched a public awareness campaign, encouraging the public to recognize trafficking where it exists. This campaign is titled “Look Beneath the Surface.”
We all need to “Look Beneath the Surface.” Americans need to know that trafficking takes place here in our nation.
Allow me to close by returning to the challenge that President George W. Bush laid before us.
We must, President Bush charged, “ show new energy in fighting back an old evil.”
Over the next few days, you will hear how to do this from experts in the field,
from four Assistant Attorneys General,
from the Governor of the State of Florida,
from the Attorney General of the United States, and of course,
from President George W. Bush himself.
President George W. Bush's leadership in eliminating human trafficking has, as you heard today, brought about great results. It is up to us to do more.
As President Bush told the United Nations, “the victims of sex trade see so little of life before they see the very worst of life – an underground of brutality and lonely fear.”
Return with me again, for a moment to that room, where that girl, no older than 14, was raped up to 30 times per day. Where she lived the very worst of life, day after day after day.
That is why we are here. To ensure that girls like her are rescued, so that they never again have to return to that vile underground.
Thank you all for coming, and thank you for your efforts and your prayers.
* Assistant Attorney General Acosta frequently departs from prepared text.