Skip to main content

Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the National Conference on Human Trafficking


Arlington, VA
United States

Thank you, Laurie [Robinson]. It’s an honor to join you in opening today’s conference and in welcoming our participants. And I especially want to thank you, Mary Lou [Leary], and the entire Office of Justice Programs for organizing this important conference and bringing together so many law enforcement officers, victim service providers and agency partners.

Many of you have traveled from all across the country to be here. Let me thank each of you for your engagement, for your service to your communities and to human trafficking victims, and for your commitment to the principles that define who we are, and who we can be, as a people.

Nearly 150 years have passed since our nation abolished the abhorrent and repugnant practice of owning and enslaving others. Of course, there is no more basic human right than freedom from slavery. It is enshrined in the 13th Amendment of our Constitution. And it is the very first right recognized by international law. Yet, in its modern form of trafficking, this cruel practice persists on an enormous and alarming scale.

Today, human trafficking has become big business – generating billions of dollars each year through the entrapment and exploitation of millions. Almost every country in the world is affected, either as a source or destination for victims. Here in the United States, the problem is, unfortunately, growing.

But you already know this. All of you have read the reports and reviewed the data. And many of you have learned this truth in the hardest of ways – by experiencing it through working directly with victims. You’ve seen how, in too many of our communities and businesses, the poorest and most vulnerable among us are being robbed of basic rights to dignity, security and opportunity.

Instead of despair, you’ve responded with dedication – and with the resolve necessary to fight back. Since the landmark Trafficking Victims Protection Act passed in 2000, many of the people in this room have led the way in bringing human trafficking crimes to light and to justice. You’ve given voice to victims and helped to rescue thousands of them. And you’ve revealed the brutality that too many experience on their journeys toward freedom and equality. Not only have you helped to raise awareness about these crimes; you’ve also demanded our government’s vigilance in combating them.

The stories you have heard – and some of the cases you will discuss throughout this conference – break our hearts and chill our souls. But they also guide and inspire the work we do every day, at every level of this Justice Department: to address and to end human trafficking. This morning, I want to talk to you about the department’s latest work in this area. And I want to assure you all that I share your commitment to combating human trafficking crimes.

For today’s Justice Department, our work to pursue human trafficking investigations and prosecutions and to support those who serve and assist victims is not simply a top priority. It’s also a source of great pride. Much of this work is being led by our Civil Rights Division and its specialized Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit. Three years ago, this unit was established to consolidate expertise and to improve coordination between the many critical partners needed to bring traffickers to justice and to protect and empower victims.

In a short time, this unit has achieved remarkable success in increasing both the number and impact of human trafficking prosecutions. It has dismantled organized human trafficking networks operating in multiple jurisdictions and across international borders. And it has achieved justice for many, including undocumented migrants who’ve seen their hopes of a better life destroyed; documented guest workers who’ve been deceived, threatened and frightened into captivity; women and children who’ve been forced into prostitution; and young Americans who’ve been exploited in their own county by traffickers preying on their vulnerabilities. These are extraordinary accomplishments.

But our Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit isn’t working alone. It is supported and strengthened by our Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, our Office of International Affairs, our Organized Crime and Racketeering Section, our Office of Justice Programs and its Office for Victims of Crime, as well as the FBI. In addition, the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices across the country are providing critical leadership in bringing human traffickers to justice. Later in this conference, you’ll be hearing from some of the Assistant U.S. Attorneys who were on the front lines of major human trafficking prosecutions.

As you all know, this fight must extend beyond the Justice Department. That’s why, today, we’re working in close collaboration with the Departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, State, Defense, and Labor. We’ve also strengthened coordination with state and local law enforcement officials who are critical in detecting human trafficking crimes, advancing prosecutions, and improving our ability to locate, rescue and assist victims. I’m pleased to see so many of these partners in the audience today, and I’m glad that you’ll have the chance to hear from them throughout this conference. They’ll be the first to tell you that, regardless of how their individual states and communities are affected, human trafficking is a global problem. And it demands a global solution.

Today, some of our most critical partnerships have been established beyond our nation’s borders. We’re working closely with authorities in other countries to extradite fugitive defendants, protect victims’ families, obtain evidence of criminal activity, and combat trafficking networks that operate across international lines.  A leading example of this is our recent work with Mexico. The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security have collaborated closely with our Mexican counterparts on a bilateral enforcement initiative aimed at dismantling the trafficking networks that operate across our Southwest border. Although this initiative is in its early stages, it has already produced promising results for both countries – including measurable increases in the number of defendants apprehended, cases prosecuted and victims rescued.

The benefits of such international partnerships are clear. By working with our foreign allies, we’ve succeeded in liberating Jamaican tree-cutters from shacks in New Hampshire; Filipino workers from chain motels in South Dakota; Eastern European women from strip clubs in Detroit; Vietnamese garment workers from American Samoa; Peruvian factory workers – including children – from traffickers on Long Island; and young girls from Togo and Ghana – some just 10 years old – from toiling around the clock without pay in hair salons in New Jersey.

But despite these achievements, there is much more work to be done. Meeting the civil rights challenges of the 21st century will require us to identify new enforcement strategies, to forge new partnerships, and to provide more support for victim service providers. But we should all be encouraged that the global movement to end human trafficking has received unprecedented attention and resources, as well as unprecedented political support.

At the beginning of this year, President Obama declared January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, calling on our nation to acknowledge modern-day slavery and to recommit ourselves to stopping and preventing human trafficking. The Department of Justice is committed to answering this call. But we can’t do it alone. Today, our nation’s struggle to ensure civil and human rights continues. And, unfortunately, our battle against slavery must endure. This fight – quite simply – will not be won without your continued help, hard work, leadership, and partnership. Together, I believe we can build on the progress that’s been made in recent years. And I’m certain we can do more for those most in need of our intervention.

Slavery, in all its forms, is morally wrong. It is beyond that which is acceptable in any civilized nation. And I assure you that combating the entrapment, abuse, and exploitation of trafficking victims is one of this Justice Department’s highest priorities. Those of us here today are bound together by an unrelenting commitment to eradicate the scourge of human suffering and involuntary servitude. And we are united in the recognition that there isn’t a second to lose. We must seize the opportunity to be a leader in the global fight against human trafficking, and to ensure that the nation we love remains a beacon of freedom for all humankind.

Your presence here today reflects the best aspects of our nation’s history. And your commitment to this work gives me great hope about its future. I look forward to what we can do, what we must do, and what we will accomplish together.

Thank you all.

Updated March 14, 2016