Amb. CdeBaca Combats Sex Trafficking In The U.S.

Many prostitutes are forced into prostitution and controlled by human traffickers. Luis CdeBaca, Ambassador-at-large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the State Department, talks about human trafficking in the U.S.

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This week, NPR correspondent Jacki Lyden took us into the lives of prostitutes who work the streets of Nashville and their struggle to get out of that life. Between the depravity, the drugs and violence, it might seem as bad as it gets. It's not. Those women at least have some choices, others don't.

Sex trafficking for children continues to rise in the United States, especially for girls, and prosecutions are up overall. While many come from overseas, many are Americans as well.

If you've worked to combat sex trafficking, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Luis CdeBaca is the ambassador-at-large to monitor and combat trafficking in persons at the U.S. State Department, and Ambassador CdeBaca joins us here in Studio 3-A.

Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. LUIS CDEBACA (Director, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, U.S. State Department): Good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And is it fair to describe the situation of these women and girls as slavery?

Mr. CDEBACA: It is. One of the things that we're looking at as we try to fight this thing that's been called sex trafficking over the last decade or so is that the promise that we're working to effectuate is actually the 13th Amendment promise that no one in the United States shall be subjected to involuntary servitude.

It doesn't matter whether that's in a farm, in a brothel or as a domestic servant. If somebody is being forced to work against their will, if they're trapped, can't get out, then that it is somebody who would be considered a victim of modern slavery.

CONAN: And we've heard the sad story of people who are lured to this country and in countries in Europe, too - from Central Europe, from Eastern Europe, from Russia - from various places around the world. Is that still continuing?

Mr. CDEBACA: It's definitely continuing, but I think one of the things that the focus on the international trafficking at times took away from is the realization that there a lot of U.S. citizens victims as well. We have to make sure that we're so not focused on one group of victims that we ignore those who are right in front of us.

CONAN: Anyway to estimate the numbers?

Mr. CDEBACA: It's - all the numbers are very imprecise, notoriously so, because this is a hidden crime that the pimps or the traffickers, almost by definition, their job is to keep their victims from reporting, keep their victims from going forward. If they do escape, they don't want to come to law enforcement because, unfortunately, they're afraid that they'll get arrested and deported if they're an alien. And if they're an American, they're afraid that they'll be put in prison, say, for instance, for prostitution.

CONAN: And as - we know how the mechanism works from overseas, a young girl sometimes attracted by or lured with promises of jobs in hotels or other businesses, and it turns out it's something quite different. How does the mechanism work in the United States?

Mr. CDEBACA: Well, it's remarkably similar in that the traffickers whether they're American citizen street pimps or others are basically selling the same thing that their foreign counterparts - hope, a better life, something different than what the victims have.

In this case, in the United States, because there is such a correlation between child sexual abuse and child prostitution, a lot of times it might be somebody who has that unerring ability to figure out which are the vulnerable girls, whether it's eighth, ninth, 10th graders. Maybe they have been abused at home. Maybe they're willing to run away from -mom has a new boyfriend or what have you or they might be wrestling with an addiction.

The pimp seemed to be able to look at the women around them, look at the girls around them, find that vulnerability. But then, they basically offer glamour, a better life, even love. So it's very similar to what we see with international trafficking as well. It's basically they offer hope, and they deliver with a nightmare.

CONAN: We can see the State Department's role with these women and young girls coming from Romania or Cambodia. What's your role in this country?

Mr. CDEBACA: Well, in the coordinator of the interagency taskforce, the senior policy operating group on trafficking which was set up by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.

One of the things that we've seen in countries around the world is if each individual ministry or each individual Cabinet agency is off doing work on its own rather than coordinating, then the traffickers seemed to find those gaps and exploit them. Now, that's - I do the day-to-day work on that. But the chair of the Interagency Task Force is Secretary Clinton.

We had a meeting about two months ago of the Cabinet secretaries and it was, frankly, inspiring to see everybody, from the attorney general to the secretary of Defense, secretary of Agriculture, all taking an hour or two out of the day to say, how do we find and get rid of slavery within our own agency's responsibilities?

I think people would be surprised to hear that Department of Interior or Department of Agriculture has a role in this fight just as much as Homeland Security or Justice Department.

CONAN: And what do you actually do to combat this traffic?

Amb. CdeBACA: Well, one of the things that the United States has done over the last 10 years globally is that we've been pushing for a new approach to this problem. A lot of folks tend to think of it as transportation of women for prostitution across international borders. That's the old definition from the 1800s.

The modern definition, coming from our law in 2000 and the international standards set forth in the U.N. about 10 years ago, really focuses on the exploitation of the people. It doesn't have to be taken across an international border. They don't have to have been moved anywhere. If somebody has been held as a slave, they're considered a trafficking victim under the new law.

So we've been working with countries around the world to get modern laws in place, to do police training, to have structures, and then also to do that here in the United States.

For the first time in the history of the trafficking victims' report, which we do every year, we included the United States, because we realized the Obama administration was looking at where are the things that we're telling other countries that they need to do? And it wasn't a matter of simply saying, well, it would be only fair for us to analyze ourselves. It's also - we have a matrix of how we look at a country to see whether it's fighting trafficking effectively or not. And it was really kind of unfair to not apply that to the United States.

There were trafficking victims in the U.S. who might not have been getting what they needed if we didn't apply that same diagnosis to ourselves. In some ways it's like having a doctor that had spent eight years not giving himself a blood pressure test while telling every one of his patients they needed to have their blood pressure checked.

CONAN: So what do we need to do? Obviously, local officials, state officials have to be involved with this as well as federal.

Amb. CdeBACA: One of the main things that we've found last year when we analyzed the U.S. for the first time in the human trafficking report, was that victim identification and victim care continues to lag. We've got 46 of the 50 states have now passed trafficking legislation. Most recently, yesterday, in Hawaii, the state legislature is sending to Governor Abercrombie, for his signature, a bill outlawing forced labor in Hawaii.

But having those laws on the books isn't enough. That notion of being able to then get the police officers, the child protective workers, those who might be able to come into contact with these folks so they know what they're seeing and then they can help them, instead of, as all too often happens, arresting the women and prosecuting them for being prostitutes.

CONAN: It's hard sometimes - prostitution is a crime - to get them to see them as victims and not as criminals.

Amb. CdeBACA: Very much so. And I think that one of the things that we see is that prostitution can affect neighborhoods. It can affect communities and certainly affects the people who are involved in it. And a lot of the legal systems have grown up with that notion of it being a nuisance crime or a vice crime, or it's seen as a place where your - as Jacki Lyden's story sets forth - a place where there are drug abuses or violence or this or that. But a lot of the drug abuse and a lot of the violence is falling mostly heavily on the women in prostitution.

So I think that this modern anti-trafficking movement, this modern abolitionist movement of the last 10 years, is saying, you know, we need to stop for a minute, look to see how we are compassionate to those women. What do they need to be able to put their lives back together? Rather than simply say, the quickest and easiest thing to do is just arrest them, take them to jail for a few days.

CONAN: You describe it as an abolitionist movement. If you describe it as slavery, that's a fair description of the movement too. It's a little discouraging because, though ultimately successful, the abolitionist movement we think of back in the 19th century, it took some time.

Amb. CdeBACA: It took some time. And, you know, we've been very aware over the last couple of weeks, that is 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, these are things that the United States has wrestled with throughout our history.

And one of the things that's brilliant about the 13th Amendment is that it didn't simply say slavery is done. It's over. It actually said involuntary servitude shall not exist going forward.

So this is one of those things where, you know, we have a president who has the Emancipation Proclamation in his office, not a copy, the Emancipation Proclamation. And I think that he sees it, and I certainly see it in the work that I do, as we're delivering on a promise that was made 150 years ago by President Lincoln and by the people who went and fought for freedom. So I think it's entirely appropriate for us to call this a modern abolitionist movement.

CONAN: Yet the numbers would seem to suggest in some ways it's getting worse.

Amb. CdeBACA: And I think that some of that is because we're looking for it more, and we're finding cases, we're re-characterizing things. But I also think that globalization and technology allows the traffickers, allows the pimps to operate in a way that they never used to be able to.

It used to be that the pimp would have to, you know, find a street corner, maybe carve out a neighborhood that was - what he controlled as opposed to the other folks in that particular area, and manage the women through personal contact, force, et cetera.

Now, whether it's, you know, on Craigslist or on some of these other social networking sites, the pimps can offer these women and children for sale across the entire Internet. You can bring somebody who you've lured from another country. You can bring them into the United States, you know, five or six days after you met them in their village.

Back in the old days, in the late 1800s, when we had this problem with girls and women from Eastern Europe, you know, you had to take them from their shtetl to somewhere with a ship and get them to United States. It would be six months between when you first sold them this dream of America and then when you change the dynamic, when you got to where you were going. That thing has been accelerated now by technology. So I think that, you know, communications technology and transportation technology, unfortunately, have made things a lot easier for these guys.

CONAN: We're talking with Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, State Department's ambassador-at-large, who oversees the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Josh(ph) is on the line, Josh calling from Minneapolis.

JOSH (Caller): Hi, thank you. Yeah, I'm calling because I work for a nonprofit organization called Venture Expeditions out of the Twin Cities. And one of the things we focus on is creating opportunities for people to respond to the issue of human trafficking and slavery that they're hearing about on the news and in the media these days.

CONAN: And how do they do that?

JOSH: Well, one of the different forms that we found that's been effective is creating an opportunity for people to do something. And what we started about as - is a college group of guys who decided to ride bicycles across the country; and as they stop in communities, educating people about issues of injustice and oppression.

More recently in the past few years, we've been doing these types of trips in the U.S. as well as in countries like Thailand and in Turkey, talking about issues of human trafficking as well as the causes, like poverty, lack of education, exploitation, these types of things, and educating people to get connected to great organizations like International Justice Mission or Free the Slaves, stuff like that, to learn more about it as well as financially and physically give...

CONAN: Josh, I understand what you're trying to do. How are you sensitized to this? How did you learn about it?

JOSH: I found out about it in college. I was kind of (technical difficulty). And I went to college, I recognized that my perspective on life wasn't really the most accurate one, and so I focused on studying international relief and development. And as I spent two summers in Africa, learning culture and language, I started learning about how these issues were overseas. And when I came back, I started learning about how these were also in the Twin Cities and in America as well, and how, you know, now that I know, I have a responsibility to do something, or I can just continue to act like I dont know.

CONAN: Josh, thanks very much for the call. Good luck.

JOSH: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Are there programs as well? You mention there's enormous fear of some of these women brought in from overseas of being deported; others of being thrown into jail for prostitution. Are there rehabilitation programs, or is there somewhere else for them to turn?

Amb. CdeBACA: Well, I think that that's one of the things that we've got to work on. One of the things that came out of the Cabinet meeting in February was the notion that we have to do, in effect, a victim services strategy for the United States. But we don't need to wait until that happens. Right now, there's programs for immigrant victims of trafficking. They don't have to get deported.

There's actually something called the T visa. We can get them short and medium-term immigration status that then can allow them to stay as U.S. citizens, even a program to be able to bring their families over. And there are some real amazing success stories, people who were liberated from trafficking and slavery 10 years ago who now own their own little business, employ other people. So there are some real success stories.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in. Let's go to Mary(ph), Mary with us from Cockeysville in Maryland.

MARY (Caller): Yes. I'd like - thank you very much for having this program. And I'd like to speak about the Maryland Task Force on Human Trafficking and its cooperation with officials at the federal levels, for example, the FBI, the Immigration Service and so on.

Maryland Task Force does training for - supports training for law enforcement, supports legislation and also supports direct service when trafficked women, particularly but not exclusively in the United States, are found after a raid, so that they give them clothing, housing, therapy, job interviews.

CONAN: I wonder, do you find any resistance among law enforcement to the kinds of issues that you raise?

MARY: I attended several training programs for law enforcement and I would say there was some, perhaps among the younger members, but on the whole I found the law enforcement very open and supportive in trying to learn.

CONAN: Do you think you're making progress?

MARY: Yes, I think that it's a very good, strong program. And I'd like to add that one of the bills that passed the Maryland Legislature this term, which just ended, expunges any records for prostitution of domestic trafficking victims. And we consider that a big victory.

CONAN: Mary, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MARY: You're welcome. Bye.

CONAN: And Ambassador CdeBaca, thank you very much for your time. Appreciate your coming in.

Amb. CdeBACA: It's a pleasure to be here, Neal.

CONAN: Ambassador Luis CdeBaca was appointed by President Obama to coordinate U.S. government activities in the global fight against contemporary forms of slavery. He oversees the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the State Department and joined us here in Studio 3A.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a look on the latest at the wind farm controversy off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Plus, electric cars and an annoying book. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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