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Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband Delivered Remarks at the National Human Trafficking Summit


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you for the introduction and for the opportunity to participate in this important Summit. 

Human trafficking and modern-day slavery involve deprivations of human dignity.  This evil has haunted us throughout our history, and we must never relent in our ongoing efforts to prevent and eradicate these crimes. 

During today’s Summit, you heard a brief overview of the Civil Rights Division’s anti-trafficking program, and the impact it is having on our nation’s unfinished work of eliminating slavery and the many insidious forms of compelled servitude.

Seeking justice on behalf of those held in servitude has been one of the paramount priorities of the Civil Rights Division since its founding in 1957, decades before the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the United Nations Palermo Protocol ushered in the modern anti-trafficking movement as we know it today.

I could focus my remarks on amplifying the Division’s achievements advancing our nation’s anti-trafficking priorities since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s enactment in 2000 and the creation of our specialized Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit in 2007. 

Instead, I would like to reflect first on how the Division’s Anti-Trafficking Program fits into our nation’s long and complex fight to remove the stain of slavery from our country.

When we declared our independence in 1776, we announced our founding ideals, namely, that our “Creator” created us “equal” and endowed all of us with “certain unalienable Rights” including the right to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Yet, we struggled to reconcile these ideals with the depredations inherent in the trafficking of human beings to our shores as chattel.  

And by “trafficking,” I do not mean merely transporting; I mean the trading in human beings that slave traders and “masters” engaged in to exploit other human beings for compelled servitude.  This is the core evil underlying both the historic transatlantic slave trade and modern-day forms of servitude, slavery, and trafficking. 

Of course, unlike historic chattel slavery, modern-day violations are legally prohibited, and they take different forms.  However, both historic and modern-day forms of servitude and slavery are, by their nature, deeply dissonant with our ideals of rights and liberty.

Both of these threads—our lofty ideals of freedom and our involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and slavery—are woven deeply into the fabric of our nation. 

Across the centuries, abolitionist voices have attempted to untangle these threads and consign slavery to the ash heap of history.  

Controversies over slavery roiled the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  Its compromises included tolerating slavery, and a “Fugitive Slave Clause” that required enslaved persons who escaped captivity to be “delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”  It is notable that the language avoided using the term ‘slavery,’ although its meaning was clear.  

The framers of the Constitution also deferred abolition of the transatlantic slave trade for another twenty years.  This allowed the legally sanctioned trafficking of human beings into our nation to continue until January 1, 1808.  

After 1808, the transatlantic slave trade continued.  Slave traders smuggled thousands more enslaved human beings into the United States illegally, often through Spanish Florida and Texas, over the ensuing decades.

Furthermore, domestic trafficking of enslaved men, women, and children continued unabated and fully protected under the Constitution and laws of the United States, and slavery spread into the territories and new states of our growing nation.

Legal protections perpetuated the institution of slavery and gained even greater force when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.  It required law enforcement officials to arrest and return any escaped slave.  It also rewarded these officials financially when they complied, and penalized them criminally when they did not. 

This Congressional edict enlisted free-State officials in enforcing slave-State laws.

I would like to focus on one case from that era.  The case of Anthony Burns illustrates the clash between our notions of unalienable rights and the codification of servitude and subjugation. 

In March 1854, Anthony Burns was an enslaved 19-year old man.  He escaped from Virginia and stowed away on a ship to Boston.  Mr. Burns found a job in a Boston clothing store.  He then wrote a letter to his brother in Virginia, and his former owner intercepted the letter and headed north to reclaim Mr. Burns as his chattel. 

An outraged “vigilance committee” opposed the return of Mr. Burns to bondage and pledged that “resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.”  The authorities arrested Mr. Burns as prescribed by the Fugitive Slave Law, and abolitionists tried unsuccessfully to rescue him.  Fighting broke out, and one Deputy U.S. Marshall was killed. 

President Franklin Pierce ordered the U.S. Marines to restore order and ensure the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law.  So, the authorities in Boston placed Mr. Burns on a ship and sent him back to slavery in Virginia over the vocal objections of thousands of protesters. 

Mr. Burns’ saga energized opposition to slavery. 

Boston textile magnate Amos Lawrence said that “we went to bed one night old fashioned, conservative, Compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad abolitionists.” 

Another convert to the abolitionist position, after watching Mr. Burns shipped back to bondage, wrote, “I put my face in my hand and wept.  I could do nothing less.” 

Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison publicly burned a copy of the Constitution while protesters breathed “Amen” to the denunciation of the Constitution as a “covenant of death.”

The unresolved conflict between unalienable rights and state-sanctioned slavery reached a boiling point, and the turmoil escalated into the Civil War in 1861.  As the war raged on, our sixteenth President, Abraham Lincoln, issued the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day, 1863, and declared “all persons held as slaves” in the regions fighting to secede to be “thenceforward and forever free.”

It would, however, be some time before this promise of freedom would start to take root in our Constitution and laws.  In 1865, our nation enacted the Thirteenth Amendment and finally prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude.  The Thirteenth Amendment authorized Congress to “enforce” its prohibitions by “appropriate legislation,” and Congress enacted laws to abolish the badges and incidents of slavery.  

After the Civil War ended, we witnessed hate crimes, lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and a host of related injustices that served to perpetuate the subjugation of formerly enslaved, recently-emancipated citizens. 

These badges and incidents of slavery are entrenched in our history and not easily eradicated.  We have made much progress; however, we continue to confront myriad forms of servitude and slavery, and human traffickers continue to prey on the most vulnerable members of our society.  Victims often remain hidden in the shadows and silenced by fear.

This is why the sustained struggle to deliver on the promise of freedom has been one of the highest priorities of the Civil Rights Division since its founding, in 1957. 

Our mission was then, as it is now, to uphold the civil and constitutional rights of all, particularly the most vulnerable members of our society.  And throughout more than six decades, this mission has placed us at the forefront of the Department’s and the Nation’s still-unfinished undertaking of delivering on the Thirteenth Amendment’s promise of freedom for all. 

Our commitment to seeking justice for those held in involuntary servitude will remain a centerpiece of the Division’s work. 

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act and Palermo Protocol intensified national and international attention to this affront to human dignity, and they provided us with powerful tools that accelerated the momentum of our efforts and enhanced their impact. They also enunciated expressly the fundamental principles that had animated our Involuntary Servitude and Slavery Program from its inception.

Most significantly, these provisions elevated the emphasis on the rights-based, victim-centered approach that has always been, and will remain, the cornerstone of our anti-trafficking efforts.  

This approach is essential to helping us to restore victims’ lives and bring perpetrators to justice.

In addition, broad-based, inter-disciplinary partnerships have always been fundamental to our ability to detect and protect the victims of these crimes. 

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act and its progeny established programs that expand our ability to bring together a wide range of government agencies, non-governmental victim service providers, survivor-advocates, community groups, pro bono attorneys, and private-sector partners.  This enhances the outreach, training, protection, and prevention efforts that have proven essential to detecting and interdicting this often hidden threat.  

Human trafficking is a crime of coercion centered on subjugating the will of vulnerable human beings, and it is exceedingly difficult to prove the survivors’ state of mind without affording them the safety and stability necessary to earn their trust and empower them to confide in and cooperate with us.

The strength of the robust, innovative strategic partnerships that define the Division’s anti-trafficking program today is rooted in the foundations of the Division’s multi-decade efforts to convene and lead broad-based partnerships. These efforts predate the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and include the interagency Worker Exploitation Task Force chaired by my predecessors.  That Task Force led the U.S. government’s anti-trafficking efforts in the 1990s.  It brought law enforcement, labor, human services, and immigration officials together with nongovernmental organizations and victim advocates to collaborate on outreach, training, detection, victim assistance, and enforcement.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act enabled us to expand upon these essential protections, partnerships, and programs, enhancing our ability to bring prosecutions. 

The scope and impact of our anti-trafficking work today would have been difficult to envision in 2007, when we formed our Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit; in 2000, when Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.  It would have been even more difficult to envision in the 1990s, when we formalized longstanding interagency and external partnerships into the Worker Exploitation Task Force; or in 1957, when the Civil Rights Division was founded.  It would certainly have been unthinkable in 1854, when federal officials returned Anthony Burns to slavery.

For decades after the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified and after Congress enacted statutes criminalizing involuntary servitude, federal law enforcement prosecuted only a few such cases each year.  Today, by contrast, we are leading strategic interagency enforcement initiatives that are successfully dismantling transnational trafficking networks and vindicating the rights of thousands of vulnerable victims.  Through these strong strategic partnerships with law enforcement and non-governmental anti-trafficking advocates, the Department has brought over 800 federal trafficking cases against approximately 1,800 defendants since Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. 

All of these cases involved coercion-based crimes of forced labor, adult sex trafficking, transnational sex trafficking. These prosecutions are all in addition to the significant numbers of child sex trafficking cases that do not require proof of coercion, and that are led by the child sexual exploitation experts the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. 

A few examples from recent months illustrate the scope of the Division’s anti-trafficking program.  We secured convictions on behalf of a young child brought here from West Africa and held in domestic servitude without pay for sixteen years.  We secured convictions on behalf of a young woman from New Hampshire whose sex trafficker preyed on her opioid addiction to compel her to prostitute for his profit.  We also vindicated the rights of hundreds of Thai women exploited throughout the United States by a transnational sex trafficking organization.  

In another case, we vindicated the rights of dozens of young women and girls lured into the United States from Mexico on false promises of love, marriage, and a better life.  In that case, a notorious transnational human trafficking organization compelled the victims into prostitution. We dismantled that enterprise by apprehending and convicting the traffickers who ran it on both sides of the border, and we did so in coordination with Mexican anti-trafficking authorities through our Bilateral Human Trafficking Enforcement Initiative. 

While the number and the impact of these successful prosecutions is encouraging, the continued volume and viciousness of trafficking crimes serve as chilling reminders that we still have a long road ahead.

We will continue to grapple with the scourge of slavery, over 150 years after ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.  Our nation’s long struggle to cleanse its soul of slavery and servitude should not discourage us. 

Together with all of you and many others, we are utilizing time-tested effective strategies:  victim-centered approaches to providing the survivors the safety and security they need to come forward; innovative, broad-based partnerships so we can continue uncovering hidden trafficking threats; and the criminal investigations and prosecutions of traffickers that these strategies enable us to bring.

I am honored to carry forward the Civil Rights Division’s proud legacy of serving on the front lines of our nation’s battle to deliver on the Thirteenth Amendment’s promise of freedom. for all.  We harbor no illusions that this battle can be won swiftly or easily.  Still, the Civil Rights Division will work shoulder to shoulder with all of you, and with all anti-trafficking allies who have joined us in this fight, for as long as it takes to vindicate the rights of vulnerable victims and courageous survivors.  We will remain inspired by the legacy and suffering of Anthony Burns and countless others subjected to slavery and human trafficking, and we will continue to pursue justice on their behalf.  Thank you. 

Civil Rights
Human Trafficking
Updated May 8, 2019