As many as 27 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking, including sex slavery, child prostitution and debt bondage, according to State Department estimates. Now, partisan gridlock in Congress jeopardizes efforts to help them.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) enjoyed strong bipartisan support when Congress passed it in 2000 and reauthorized it three times since. But the latest effort has been on hold for more than a year.
"If Congress fails to renew this law, it's going to have a global impact," said Jesse Eaves, a senior policy advisor at World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization.
The law imposes tough federal penalties on traffickers and funds programs to detect, arrest and prosecute them. It also supports services for victims of human trafficking.
According to advocates, the law is designed to be updated every few years to adapt to the changing methods of traffickers. And they warn if Congress fails to reauthorize the TVPA before the end of the year, funding for law enforcement and victims' services could run out next year.
"This is not the time to play partisan games," Eaves said. "You do not play politics with slavery. This is not a right or left issue. It's a right or wrong issue."
According to Congressional Quarterly, much of the current dispute is over women's health issues. But supporters of the TVPA point out Republicans and Democrats were able to achieve consensus four times in the past.
"Those issues have never really been at the forefront before," Eaves said. "And the fact that they've been allowed to distract us from the task at hand really speaks, again, to a failure of leadership on the part of both parties."
Ironically, the fight against human trafficking is a cause social conservatives and liberal human rights advocates agree on in general terms. But when it comes to Democrats and Republicans in today's political climate, even agreement on areas of common concern can be elusive.
Gridlock over a law that once had the support of strong Democrat and Republican majorities in Congress is just one example of the increasing partisan brinkmanship in Washington. When leaders of one party lose power, "they think they're only one issue, or one election, away from becoming the majority again," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University. "So, there's no incentive to compromise. We've got a political system right now where we have two minority parties."