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.