By Liezl Tomas Rebugio, Anti-Trafficking Project Director
It is high time for the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to be reauthorized. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2007, HR 3887 last December, but the Senate has yet to introduce its version. There are some really great provisions in the bill, but there are also some extremely alarming pieces. NAPAWF is working tirelessly with other advocates in the country to ensure that our anti-trafficking legislation stays true to its original intent to address forced labor and the exploitation of minors in the commercial sex trade in the United States.
So, what’s happening? Well… organizations that view human trafficking and sex work as one in the same are making a strong effort to make prostitution a federal crime. Existing federal law already prohibits the transportation of persons across state lines for the purpose of prostitution through the Mann Act. But HR 3887 seeks to expand the Mann Act to cover all prostitution that occurs within states, and redefine prostitution as “sex trafficking.” The problem is, this expansion includes prostitution cases that do not involve “force, fraud or coercion” – when in fact force, fraud or coercion is the cornerstone of human trafficking. So, HR 3887 says that all people engaged in prostitution are victims of human trafficking. (Note: This expansion of the Mann Act doesn’t apply to all types of sex work – it strictly addresses prostitution. Persons who work as exotic dancers, phone sex operators, etc. but identify as sex workers would not be covered under the bill.)
So what does this mean for survivors of human trafficking and those who are currently caught in a trafficking situation?
Right now, the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division is responsible for investigating and prosecuting trafficking cases that involve all types of forced labor, including domestic servitude, agricultural work, servile marriages, sweatshop labor, restaurant work, forced prostitution, hotel work, etc. H.R. 3887 would require the Civil Rights Division to go after every prostitution-related case in the country. Right now, local and state authorities handle these cases. It’s estimated that there are nearly 100,000 prostitution-related arrests each year. Can you imagine the Civil Rights Division going after all of these cases? NAPAWF is extremely worried that if this happens, then real trafficking cases – especially those that do not involve sex – will be lost in the shuffle.
Another alarming piece about H.R. 3887 is that it adds a new provision that alters the use of the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funds. These federal funds are distributed to states to support crime victim compensation programs and victim assistance programs, such as case management, housing, transportation, legal services and interpretation assistance. Existing law allows states to determine how VOCA funds will be allocated. However, one section of H.R. 3887 identifies all people in prostitution as victims of human trafficking, and therefore categorizes all prostitutes as “crime victims” covered by VOCA regardless of whether they claim victimization. It is extremely harmful to identify all prostitutes as victims, because not every person engaged in prostitution is a victim of a serious crime. This would be a big shift in crime victim advocacy if the U.S. Congress labels all prostitutes as crime victims.
NAPAWF is working tirelessly with other advocates to ensure that these harmful provisions in H.R. 3887 are not replicated in the Senate version. The Senate hasn’t yet introduced its version yet, but we are hoping that with enough pressure applied, we can ensure that the Mann Act will not be expanded! To learn more about human trafficking and its disproportionate impact on Asian and Pacific Islander women, read our new report, Rights to Survival & Mobility.
Stay tuned for more news and ways to get involved.