Ted Poe: Putting face on human trafficking is first step to ending this slavery

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By U.S. Rep. Ted Poe
Jessica Ford had big dreams of becoming a doctor when she was growing up. Like many
young girls, Jessica was just trying to find her way in life when she ran away from
home. After she ran away, she met a man who made her feel safe. He claimed to have
all the answers to her problems. She fell in love. Unfortunately, Jessica didn’t
realize she was falling in love with a predator.

Unbeknownst to Jessica, her new love identified her as prey and lured her in to his
control by taking advantage of her vulnerability. Before she knew what was
happening, she was his slave–threatened, raped and force into prostitution. Her
predator sold her for sex in her city and trafficked her in other places. This
nightmare – living in slavery – lasted for thirteen years.

Jessica lived in constant fear of the men who owned her during those years. Not only
did they steal her childhood, they stole her identity. She was an object to them,
sold on an underground market just like any other commodity in demand. The sick
reality of this market is best explained by Assistant U.S. Attorney Sherri Zack:
“With selling a girl there’s a huge advantage. After you sell a kilo of cocaine, you
have to then buy another kilo of cocaine, but you can sell a girl or boy over and
over again. It’s an incredible renewable resource.” Jessica’s nightmare didn’t start
in a third world country; it started right here in Houston, Texas.

Human trafficking is the second largest organized crime business in the world,
generating $32 billion a year. This dastardly deed occurs all over the world, but
most people don’t know that it occurs right here in the United States.
Unfortunately, Texas has become a hub for human trafficking-in 2007 nearly 1/3 of
the calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline came from our state. The many
interstates, airports and ports in Houston make our city convenient for traffickers.
Trafficking rings operate in places that you see along the streets in our
communities, like some massage parlors where women are sold for sex. This modern day
slave trade occurs right in our own backyard. It seems like a Hollywood movie, but
this is reality.

There are many faces of trafficking victims, but typically the victims are women –
both adult and child. In less frequest instances, the victims are men. Some are
people who are smuggled here from another country believing they will have a job.
Others are vulnerable American children. In many cases, these victims are forced
into sex and/or labor trafficking to repay a debt. Sadly, too many of them are
treated as criminals and not what they really are—victims of crime.

When I came to Congress, I founded the bipartisan Congressional Victims Rights
Caucus. The Caucus works to bring attention to human trafficking. Legislatively, the
Trafficking Victims Protection Act has brought about considerable changes in the way
that the federal government responds to trafficking and coordination worldwide. We
are working towards reauthorizing this important bill.

On the state and local levels, Texas has taken significant steps forward to prevent
trafficking, prosecute traffickers, and help victims. In Harris County, Precinct 4
Constable Ron Hickman and County Attorney Vince Ryan have made cracking down on human trafficking a top priority. They're working hard to close illegitimate
businesses and arrest and prosecute those exploiting the vulnerable. The biggest
challenge we face to battling this crime is the endless demand by customers.

Human Trafficking is modern day slavery. It's a human rights issue. Bringing
awareness to the problem is the first step. We must continue to tell stories like
Jessica's. Collaboration between federal, state and local governments is also key.
Together, we can strengthen penalties for traffickers and buyers. And most
importantly, we can't forget that those who have been trafficked are the victims. We
must treat them like victims. They need assistance as they recover from servitude
and rebuild their lives. Together we can eradicate the scourge of human trafficking.
And that's just the way it is.

Poe represents Texas District 2, which — starting in January — will include portions of the Heights and the Washington Avenue corridor. He is a former Harris County judge and the founder of the
bipartisan Congressional Victims’ Rights Caucus.

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