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Bill to counter sexual trafficking gets House panel’s OK, Senate hearing

WASHINGTON (BP)–A congressional attempt to remedy the burgeoning problem of international sexual trafficking in women and children progressed April 4 toward a floor vote in the House of Representatives.

The House Judiciary Committee gave the go-ahead by voice vote to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (H.R. 3244). Supporters of the legislation are hoping for a floor vote this spring, but it has yet to be scheduled.

The bill provides for punishment, including prison terms, for those who bring women and children into the United States for the purpose of forced prostitution. It allows for temporary visas for up to 5,000 victims a year in this country, with permanent visas permitted for those who cooperate fully in the prosecution of sex traders. The bill establishes an office within the State Department to report on countries that fail to combat sex trafficking adequately. Sanctions on nonhumanitarian aid to offending countries could be enforced, although the president has the authority under the legislation to waive such sanctions.

It is estimated about 50,000 sex trade victims are brought into this country each year. From 1 million to 2 million women and children a year are victims of trafficking worldwide, according to the State Department.

Supporters of the bill want “to have higher punishment on those traffickers within the United States [so] they recognize there is a huge cost if they’re caught doing this,” said Shannon Royce, legislative counsel of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “We are looking to do something within our own borders, but we’re also looking to set an example for the world that we in the 21st century will not tolerate this kind of sexual slavery, that it is intolerable, that it is a violation of the inalienable dignity of women and children.

“This is one of those things that comes under the Proverbs 31 passage where it says speak for the weak, speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. That is a mandate to us who are free in this nation that we have got to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.”

Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., the bill’s author, said in a written release, “The image of a young, innocent child being forcibly sold into the sex trade for the fiscal gain of one sick individual and the physical gain of another is tragic. The idea that we would allow it to go unpunished is even more so.

“This brutal, demeaning and disgusting abuse of women and children is predicated on their involuntary participation in sexual acts. This legislation will put these offenders behind bars while protecting the victim.”

On the same day of the House committee vote, a Senate subcommittee held its second hearing on the issue. The Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs heard testimony from witnesses who included Russian and Mexican women who were freed from the sex trade.

“We cannot ignore this tragedy,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., subcommittee chairman, in a written release after the hearing.

“Every time we expose [sex trafficking’s] tactics through hearings, conferences and other gatherings, another ray of light invades this darkness.”

Brownback and Sen. Paul Wellstone, D.-Minn., are working on a bill to address trafficking, but it may not include provisions for sanctions.

The White House is opposed to including sanctions in the legislation.

Before the vote on the bill, the Judiciary Committee approved an amendment removing a provision limiting the opportunity for visas only to victims under 16 years of age. Rep. Lamar Smith, R.-Texas, who was responsible for an earlier amendment with the age limit, agreed to a substitute striking the age restriction.

“That was of grave concern to us because so many of the women who are trafficked are over 16,” the ERLC’s Royce said. “They might be in the 16-to-24 category, but still they would not have been eligible for a visa under [Lamar Smith’s] provision as it passed out of subcommittee. So we were very grateful that he was willing to work with us and others concerned about this and came around to eliminating that age provision.”

The House International Relations Committee approved the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in November before sending it to the Judiciary Committee.