Sex Trafficking

Lis Wiehl

Slavery in America isn't dead. It's actually a thriving industry, cashing in more than $8 million a year. And New York has no law prohibiting this slavery. Nearly 20,000 victims are sold and trafficked every year for purposes of sexploitation. Humans — traded as a commodity, as if bought and sold on the stock exchange.

We know that sex trafficking happens in other parts of the world, yet we don't think it's happening in our backyard. We promise the “American Dream,” but we also hold the title of second highest destination in the world for trafficked women. Women are trafficked into the U.S. from Asia, Central and South American, Russia and Eastern Europe — their lives sold for $2,000 (at most) to the predators who buy them.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) says human trafficking is the third largest criminal industry in the world, right behind drugs and gun smuggling. Sex traffickers lure hundreds of thousands of desperate girls from overseas with the promise of a new life, only to enslave them once they've arrived. Some are simply abducted or driven to trafficking by poverty. For most of these girls, staying alive means working as a prostitute or stripping at a local bar. The average age of a sex slave is just 11 years.

We know this is happening, but New York has no law to fight these crimes. That is wrong! Just listen to these women:

Katya answered an ad to work as a nanny in New York City. With stars in her eyes, she was desperate to leave Russia for a better life. But when Katya landed at JFK Airport, there was no nanny job. Instead, two Russian mobsters greeted her. They took her passport and told the Russian hopeful that she owed them money for transportation and housing. Her choices: stripping in New Jersey or working in a Brooklyn massage parlor.

Then, there's Kika, a Venezuelan woman who was conned into coming to New York City by an American man offering her friendship and love. But the “loving” boyfriend confiscated her passport and money, demanding that she pay off her travel debt. He forced her to work in a brothel with other enslaved girls. When she resisted, he beat her. That first night she said, “I had sex with 19 men.” But, the worst moment in her three-year hell came when she witnessed the murder of her friend, because the girl refused to service a sex trafficker. When the police came, they treated Kika as a criminal, not a victim. She witnessed a friend's murder and was given no support.

This treatment is pervasive. Victims are often “invisible” because they are usually isolated and speak broken (if any) English. “The real tragedy right now is that the law in New York state says that a woman who is being sold in prostitution is the perpetrator of the crime, when in fact, much of the time she is the victim of the crime,” says Jane Manning, an attorney with the human rights organization Equality Now.

How can they come forward for protection when there's no law holding these predators accountable? “We think that having a law that names the crime of trafficking that is being committed, would help law enforcement officials to recognize this and attack the problem, rather than jailing the victims,” says Manning.

In New York, women are especially vulnerable. The international borders and ports, large immigration population and tourist appeal make the Big Apple a prime destination for human traffickers. In May 2005, officials arrested a New York man for holding a woman as his sex slave. During her servitude, he tied her up and posted her torture on the Internet for the world to see. And that's just the beginning. What makes catching these predators even harder is that local officials are much more likely than federal officials to intercept trafficking rings, but they have no authority under state law to arrest them and protect their victims.

In 2000, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), but it was underfunded. Not enough money equals not enough law enforcement. Federal prosecutors could only pursue the most high profile cases. Earlier this year, President Bush signed a bill to combat human trafficking, renewing the Trafficking Act of 2000. This is the right move for the federal government. But what about the states?

New York Assembly bill 1898-b, the Anti-Human trafficking Act of 2006 creates strict criminal penalties for human trafficking and assists victims of slavery. Unlike other proposals, this bill defines trafficking broadly; making it more likely such crimes are recognized and charged. Every aspect, from confiscating passports and immigration papers to physically abuse or threatening restraint, would be covered under the new legislation. This bill gives women access to federal, in addition to state, benefits and services.

Although the bill has wide support among lawmakers and women's groups, defense lawyers argue that the penalties — up to 15 years in prison for offenders — are too tough. But strengthening criminal sanctions and imposing civil fines is the only way to stop trafficking. Make it too dangerous and costly for sex traffickers to run their business here.

Right now, many predators go unpunished because our laws are impotent or non-existent. It's high time we equip New York (and the U.S.) with the legal armor necessary to stop the sex trafficking of women.

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Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently an associate professor of law at the University of Washington School of Law. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.