Photo/AP Images

Photo/AP Images

Sex traffickers exploiting children along border; Latina legislators vow to improve detection

Currently, the screening at the border to identify victims of child trafficking is performed by Customs and Border Protection personnel who are not specialists in child welfare.  California Democratic Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard,  who has been working on immigration issues for the last 20 years, says that after extensive research, she and her staff became aware of the dire need for legislation. “This is a much bigger issue than any of us realized,” she says.

Last month, Rep. Roybal-Allard reintroduced the Child Trafficking Victims Protection Act to protect vulnerable children at the border. The reintroduced CTVPA bill proposes that trained child welfare professionals be placed at Border Patrol stations to identify victims and ensure they are provided basic humanitarian assistance, including food, clothing and blankets.

“Border Patrol was ill-prepared and didn’t have the training to care for these children,” she says. “Because of that, the children weren’t being treated properly.” She says her goal now is to include the same language in the House version of the bill.

Leticia Van de Putte, a Democratic member of the Texas Senate, has also been working on human trafficking legislation for the last 10 years. She says one of the challenges in addressing this issue is the lack of statistics. In 2011 she introduced House Bill 2014, which required collecting data from court cases to get more accurate numbers.

“We weren’t tracking cases of human trafficking,” she says. “We found that there were only 71 cases filed in 2011 for trafficking of persons, but many more for prostitution. We weren’t seeing the numbers reflected at the court level.”

Van de Putte says she has offered about 20 to 30 bills on human trafficking throughout her career. House Bill 300, signed by Governor Rick Perry in 2011, increased the penalties for the sex trafficking of children, making the offense a first degree felony. House Bill 4009 also requires all border officers in Texas to undergo training by Department of Public Safety to identify victims. She says that in order for this measure to be really effective, however, border patrol in all states would have to be trained.

While child welfare advocates say proposed legislation is a step in the right direction, there are larger issues which need to be addressed, and they warn trafficking is not just a border issue.   Dr. Robert Sanborn, president and CEO of Children at Risk, says the specific bill recently introduced by Representative Roybal-Allard  is positive but only addresses a small part of what happens.  A major issue, Sanborn says, is the U.S. demand for prostitution, which keeps the sex trafficking business thriving.

“Technology has really aided pedophilia,” he says. “We are working with Attorneys General trying to figure out a better avenue.”

Sanborn adds, “I think a lot of international victims are lured into the U.S. under false pretenses. Children searching for economic progress are tricked into sexual trafficking.” And he says that while some cartels do participate in the crime, many perpetrators belong to small human trafficking rings.

On July 29th, the FBI arrested 150 people across the United States on charges of holding children against their will for prostitution, a three-day weekend sweep that officials called the largest-ever operation against child sex-trafficking.

According to the International Labour Organization, an estimated 20.9 million men, women and children are trafficked for commercial sex or forced labor around the world today. Children make up 26 percent of the total number of victims. A Congressional Research Service report found that as many as 100,000 U.S. children may be victims of domestic human trafficking. The number of victims brought into the U.S. by traffickers each year might be as high as 17,500 people.

Many experts are also concerned that deported children will be vulnerable to human traffickers. The Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently released a report confirming that 13,454 unaccompanied Mexican minors under the age of 18 were deported from the U.S. in 2012, according to Animal Politico. “They are easy prey for traffickers and I’m very concerned about these children,” Van de Putte says.

Roybal-Allard believes leaving children out of the immigration debate is a serious problem. “Much of the discussion around comprehensive immigration is focused on the male immigrants and not focused on women and children,” she says. “In my personal opinion, there are those trying to demonize immigrants and talking about children and family, that puts a human face on the issue.”

Erika Sanchez NBC Latino avatar

Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and writer living in Chicago.  You can find her on TwitterFacebook, or www.erikalsanchez.com

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