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Land, others warn Bush: Get Department of Justice in line on human trafficking bill

WASHINGTON (BP)–Southern Baptist ethics leader Richard Land has joined in warning President Bush his own Department of Justice is threatening to tarnish his legacy on combating human trafficking.

The president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and 13 others told Bush in a letter that the Department of Justice (DOJ) “is out of step with your bold stance against slavery and human trafficking.” They called for Bush to bring the department into compliance with his policy goals and urged the president to provide unwavering support to legislation opposed by the department.

For its part, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said it remains fully supportive of Bush’s priorities on the issue but believes the legislation in question would “compromise” its strategy to combat trafficking.

DOJ has worked against a bill approved overwhelmingly by the House of Representatives that anti-trafficking advocates consider stronger than a version in the Senate. The House voted 405-2 in December for the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, H.R. 3887. The Senate Judiciary Committee reported the Senate version, S. 3061, to the full chamber July 31.

In the letter to Bush, Land and the other signers said the Senate bill does not include language in the House-approved version that is “necessary to aggressively prosecute sex traffickers” and further empower the Department of State in its efforts against global trafficking. The Senate bill “hampers crucial enforcement provisions,” they told the president.

DOJ contends its opposition to the House measure is based on prosecutorial limitations that are placed on it by states’ rights and a lack of resources, the letter said. Land and the others contested those arguments, saying slavery has long been a federal issue and DOJ “does not have to take up thousands of cases against pimp-traffickers, only the most egregious.”

“With these hollow objections, DOJ has opposed federal prosecution of many American sex tourists who create demand for adult victims abroad, opposed the incorporation of explicitly named penalties within the [House bill] for Americans sexually abusing children abroad, and opposed taking away from pimps the defense that they did not know a child’s age,” the Aug. 6 letter said.

“We applaud the historic efforts of your Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons and firmly believe this issue may well be one of your administration’s greatest legacies,” Land and the others told Bush. “Unfortunately, this legacy is now in peril.”

The letter echoed sentiments expressed by John Miller, former head of the Department of State’s trafficking office, in a July 11 commentary for The New York Times. Miller criticized DOJ’s opposition to the House bill and warned Bush of the potential fall-out.

In a 13-page letter in 2007, DOJ “blasted almost every provision in the new bill that would reasonably expand American anti-slavery efforts,” Miller, director of the trafficking office from 2002 to 2006, wrote in The Times commentary. The president should meet with supporters of the House bill who have been unable to schedule a meeting with Bush and also meet with DOJ “before he loses his legacy and his leadership on the abolition of modern slavery,” Miller wrote.

DOJ, however, said in a fact sheet released in July the Senate measure would aid its anti-trafficking strategy, while the House version would result in the department focusing on adult prostitution. That would divert attention from its efforts to combat trafficking involving coercion and child victims, according to DOJ. States and localities already are fighting adult prostitution, the department said.

In the document, DOJ also said it was not alone in opposing the House bill. Other organizations that oppose the legislation include the Fraternal Order of Police, National Association of State Attorneys General and Heritage Foundation, according to DOJ.

A DOJ spokesperson informed Baptist Press the department would have no further comment on the topic beyond the fact sheet and other items on its website.

The letter to Bush was sent from Bruce Chapman, president of the Discovery Institute. The institute is a Seattle, Wash.,-based public policy think tank that probably is best known for its promotion of intelligent design. Miller is a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute.

In addition to Land, other signers included Donna Hughes, a University of Rhode Island professor and a leader of the anti-trafficking movement; Phyllis Schlafly, president of Eagle Forum; Paul Weyrich, national chairman of Coalitions for America, and Don Wildmon, chairman of the American Family Association.

The same coalition also sent a letter to Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., asking him to withdraw his support for the Senate version and to introduce the House bill in his chamber. The letter expressed concern that Brownback, a champion on trafficking and other human rights issues, has co-sponsored the Senate measure.

About 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked across international borders each year, according to the Department of State’s trafficking office. This does not include millions of victims who are trafficked within their own national borders, the office says. About 80 percent of the transnational victims are females, and as much as 50 percent are minors.

Human trafficking includes forced commercial and domestic labor, as well as coercive recruitment of children as soldiers, but the data show the majority of those trafficked across international borders are victims of sexual exploitation.

The trafficking office has estimated as many as 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year.

Supporters of the House bill say it would make the following improvements in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act originally approved in 2000:

— It would make sure the law regards “proof of fraud, force, or coercion, and the use of minors by sex traffickers” as the bases not for conviction but for heightened punishment.

— It would connect domestic with international trafficking in order to combat both more actively.

— It would empower the trafficking office to influence other governments to act more aggressively against trafficking.

In mid-April, Land called on the leading presidential candidates to promote the House bill and make it a priority in their parties’ campaign platforms. In a letter to Republican John McCain and Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Land said the measure “will build on our already tremendous successes internationally and also enable us to deal more decisively with trafficking in our own country.”

At the time, Obama and Clinton were still competing for the Democratic nomination, a race since won by Obama.

The legislation is named after the evangelical Christian who led the effort in British Parliament year after year to outlaw the British slave trade, a campaign that finally succeeded early in the 19th century.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.