On 150th Anniversary of Emancipation Proclamation, Congress Must Protect Today’s Trafficking Victims

150 years ago this weekend, President Lincoln issued a preliminary decree stating that he would free the slaves in the rebelling Confederate states if they failed to return to the Union within 100 days.

Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, and called it “an act of justice.”

None of the rebelling states returned, and the Emancipation Proclamation -- declaring that slaves in the Confederacy "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free" –– became effective.

It was at this moment that the Civil War shifted from a conflict over the preservation of the Union to a struggle to abolish slavery. It marked the moment in U.S. history when the federal government made a policy to abolish involuntary servitude in the United States.

We cannot honor the passing of this anniversary without acknowledging the extent to which human trafficking and forced labor continue to exist within our borders today.

Men, women, and children are trafficked into sweatshops, farm labor, the commercial sex industry, domestic work, restaurants, hotels, construction work, and other low-wage industries. Some victims are U.S. citizens, others valid visa holders, and some lack immigration status. They are educated or illiterate, young or old, limited-English proficient or native English speakers. Those who traffic them include men and women, organized crime syndicates and legitimate employers, high-powered government officials and lay people, complex international organizations and merely couples employing a single domestic worker.

There are approximately 27 million victims of trafficking worldwide, according to the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report. Yet even as the State Department acknowledged the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and declared trafficking to be “modern-day slavery,” this recognition stands in stark contrast to our government’s failure to reauthorize the cornerstone of anti-trafficking law in the U.S. – the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

Signed in 2000 by President George W. Bush and reauthorized three times since then with bipartisan support, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, has now run into Republican gridlock.

The Senate bill proposing the act’s reauthorization, S. 1301, enhances penalties against traffickers, encourages government agencies to work together, and increases the protections provided to victims.

Yet for the first time since its inception, reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act remains stalled in the House with only 48 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle.

The reauthorization has become embroiled in a vicious partisan debate over the provision of reproductive services, which is distracting from the core issue of human trafficking and the basic human rights protections the bill provides.

In the midst of this standstill, the toxic Republican-backed House Bill 3589 has emerged, which seeks to deprive the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from making grants to organizations that aid trafficking victims.

The House bill also contains a deplorable “conscience” clause that allows recipients of federal grants to deny trafficking victims reproductive services – in essence, politicizing a health and safety issue for the most vulnerable among us. A trial court recently ruled that HHS violated the First Amendment by allowing a religious organization grantee to impose religious restrictions on the way subgrantees use federal funds to serve trafficking victims, such as by limiting provision of reproductive services. H.R. 3589, which rose in the wake of this decision, explicitly contradicts the federal court’s ruling.

H.R. 3589 has only 16 supporters at present, but it is a dangerous diversion from our legitimate efforts to combat trafficking. Rather than making advances in our goals for public safety and the rights of trafficking victims, we are backtracking.

The Emancipation Proclamation reminds us that the law can be among the most powerful tools in combating involuntary servitude.

On the 150th anniversary of the decree that led to American slavery’s abolition, Congress must in turn acknowledge the government’s responsibility to protect victims of trafficking and forced labor, and come together to reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

Ivy O. Suriyopas leads the Anti-Trafficking Initiative at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF). Suriyopas also serves as a Freedom Network (USA) policy co-chair and as a steering committee member of the New York Anti-Trafficking Network. She co-authored the third edition of “Identification and Legal Advocacy for Trafficking Survivors” and the first edition of “Immigration Relief for Crime Victims: The U Visa Manual.” In 2012, Suriyopas was a recipient of the New York City Bar Association’s Annual Legal Services Award.