In the last several weeks, President Joe Biden has reversed—or put on hold—many of the Trump administration’s immigration and border security policies. But surely fighting the scourge of human trafficking is a piece of Trump’s legacy that should be spared the chopping block. Indeed, this is one area where Biden’s Department of Homeland Security should be looking to continue and build upon the work of the previous administration.
There can really be no difference of political opinion about the virtue of dismantling criminal networks that prey upon innocents. In the case of human trafficking, breaking up those networks is also a matter of national security. The same cartels that destabilize Latin America and the U.S. with their multibillion-dollar trade in illicit narcotics also rake in enormous profits from trafficking in humans.
This is not just a sideline for them. Among violent Mexican cartels, people are the third most-trafficked commodity, trailing only drugs and guns. While it is impossible to know precisely how many people are trafficked into the U.S. annually, the National Criminal Justice Reference Service estimated the number to be between 14,500 and 17,500—and that was 15 years ago. Surely the number is far higher today.
Activists estimate that 75 percent of those victimized by Mexican cartels are women and young girls trafficked for sexual exploitation. Central American criminal organizations are deeply involved as well.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice, partnering with several Central American and Mexican law enforcement agencies, helped arrest more than 700 MS-13 and M-18 gang members throughout the Northern Triangle and Mexico—often on human trafficking charges.
ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations team provided information critical to the success of those law enforcement operations. But the DHS’s anti-trafficking efforts went broader than that.
A year ago, DHS published its first official Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking. It was part of a larger Trump administration effort to crack down on this form of modern-day slavery. Due to the organized nature of this criminal activity, its scale, the cross-border nexus and the horrible abuse and terror inflicted on its victims, I decided to make these crimes a DHS priority.
But making it a priority meant upsetting the apple cart. The department needed to get serious about devoting resources to this issue. In FY 2020, we ramped up our Victim Assistance Program by $21 million, enabling us to hire up to 100 victims’ assistants to help identify victims and get them safely on the road to recovery.
But that didn’t go far enough. In September 2020, we altered our organizational structure to better counter organized crime. DHS opened its Center for Countering Human Trafficking, in which 16 DHS components and headquarter offices now pool their resources to, first, identify and stabilize victims and then to investigate and prosecute traffickers and others engaged in human exploitation.
And the center does even more. It provides victim support, assistance and protection. It conducts outreach to law enforcement, the private sector and NGOs. It provides education and prevention training to the community at large, and ensures that red-flag indicators of trafficking are channeled into one, central repository.
With its holistic, victim-centered approach and adequate resources, the center gives the DHS a powerful new weapon in the fight against human trafficking. Now is the time to expand on these efforts, and for the department to be a leading voice in keeping other federal agencies engaged and dedicated to this mission.
In developing regions like Latin America, the pandemic-induced economic downturn has left millions impoverished, creating vulnerable new populations for human traffickers. Regional governments cannot confront this challenge alone; U.S. leadership and support is sorely needed. The new DHS team should think twice before scrapping this important work simply because it was started under President Trump.
This piece originally appeared in Bangor Daily News