Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto last week held a meeting at UNLV about human trafficking, and it was well worth the time and coverage it received.
Human trafficking is a vile and all-too-real crime that has been under the public’s radar. It is often misunderstood as human smuggling, in which people willingly go across a border with the help of others. But there’s nothing voluntary about human trafficking; it is modern-day slavery. It occurs when people are pushed into labor or the sex trade through force, fraud or coercion, all for someone else’s financial gain.
Consider an immigrant who comes to the country legally but is threatened with deportation if he complains that the boss fails to pay him. Or the young woman who is threatened that she’ll be shot or left penniless if she runs out on a pimp.
This can — and does — happen anywhere. Las Vegas has become a focal point for the national discussion because of the vibrant sex trade here, as Jackie Valley reported in the Sun last week. Human trafficking has bloomed because of the demand.
The extent of the crime is difficult to determine because it is under-reported due to misunderstandings, the secret nature of it and victims’ shame. But there is no doubt it is happening at a distressing rate:
• Nearly 21 million people around the world are being trafficked, the International Labor Organization reported last year.
• As many as 17,500 people were being trafficked into the United States, according to a State Department study in 2005.
• As many as 100,000 minors have been forced into the sex trade in the United States, according to an estimate from the Human Trafficking Resource Center.
There are skeptics who downplay the numbers, noting that these are just estimates. But how many people does it take to suggest there’s a problem?
Here are two more numbers to consider:
• 107 — That’s how many juveniles, including three boys, that Metro’s vice section took out of the sex trade last year, said Lt. Karen Hughes. Sixty-one percent were from Nevada. And those are just the ones Metro found.
• 8,500 — That’s the number of calls a 24-hour national hotline for human trafficking took over the past five years from victims or people with tips about victims. The hotline — 888-373-7888 — isn’t well known, and Bradley Myles, executive director of the Polaris Project, which runs the hotline, figures “that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
In an editorial board meeting with the Sun last week, Myles said the studies that have been done on human trafficking suggest a “massive problem in the U.S.”
The United States hasn’t fully confronted this issue. In many states, including Nevada, the laws are out of date. As a result, the victims are often treated as criminals. For example, an 18-year-old girl who was forced into the sex trade as a minor may be considered a prostitute, not a victim. And if she escapes from her pimp, trying to get a job will be difficult with a criminal record.
Thankfully, Myles said there is a “very palpable groundswell” of support to fight human trafficking and change the laws.
That’s true in Nevada, where political leaders, activists and religious groups have come together on the issue. Cortez Masto’s summit was evidence of that.
This year, the Legislature will have a chance to take action. Cortez Masto has proposed Assembly Bill 67, which would overhaul the state’s laws to recognize human trafficking and take significant steps to fight it. Several other lawmakers, notably Republican Assemblyman John Hambrick, are offering bills that would complement Cortez Masto’s legislation. Together, the legislation should give the state a good foundation to fight human trafficking. It would provide tougher penalties for traffickers and also provide help to victims.
The bottom line is this: human trafficking must be addressed aggressively. Passing legislation like this would not only provide a strong statement against the crime, but also go a long way toward fighting it.