Congressman Chris Smith’s remarks to the ‘Shine the Light’ conference on human trafficking

Excerpts of remarks by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) at the Shine the Light conference on human traffiWashington, DC—March 8, 2021

“Words are inadequate to convey my respect and gratitude for the amazing work you are doing to end modern-day slavery and to rescue victims of both sex and labor trafficking.

Like you, I believe we have a duty to act—to shine a bright light on these egregious human rights violations, and to eagerly accept Jesus’ challenge to “hunger and thirst” for righteousness and to recognize and help those, as we would the Lord Himself, who have been forced to be the “least”.

Last October 28th marked the twentieth anniversary of a law I authored—the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. (Over the years, I’ve authored four additional laws to combat human trafficking—including in 200320052016, and 2019.)

Though it is hard to believe now, when I first introduced the TVPA in the 1990s the legislation was met with a wall of skepticism and outright opposition—dismissed by many as a solution in search of a problem.

For most people at that time—including lawmakers—the term trafficking applied almost exclusively to drugs and weapons, not human beings.

Reports of vulnerable persons—especially women and children—being reduced to commodities for sale were often met with surprise, incredulity or indifference.

With a tremendous push from the faith-based community, especially the Catholic Church, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 was enacted into law and created a new whole-of-government domestic and international strategy and established numerous new programs to protect victims, prosecute traffickers and to the greatest extent possible, prevent it in the first place—the three Ps.

It included a number of “sea change” criminal code reforms including treating as a victim—and not a perpetrator of a crime—anyone exploited by a commercial sex act who had not attained the age of 18 and anyone older where there was an element of force, fraud or coercion.

Thousands of human traffickers have been prosecuted and jailed pursuant to the Actincluding all charges brought against Jeffrey Epstein and the infamous NXIVM cult convictions involving Smallville actress Allison Mack and Keith Raniere’s 120-year jail sentence.

And the TVPA established the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Office and annual TIP report with its tier grading of every nation’s record in making  “serious and sustained efforts” to eliminate human trafficking.  Those relegated to what we call Tier 3 are subject to sanctions.

The TVPA also included sheltering and a national hotline and on the refugee side, created a new asylum category—the T visa—to protect victims and their families.

I have visited trafficking victim’s shelters here and all over the world including in Russia, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Romania, Ukraine, Italy, Greece and more.

In Lima, Peru, for example the Catholic sisters showed my delegation how they not only brought the good news of the gospel to broken young women but taught them life skills and job training as well. It was clear that despite severe trauma, many of those girls and young women were filled with the kind of joy that surpasses all understanding.  In Rome I heard a Nigerian girl describe how her journey to hope and renewal from the streets began when she got into Sister Eugenia Bonetti’s rescue van and then to the shelter.

Victims have no better friend than you.

Meanwhile, while all of us are focused on combating COVID-19, one highly disturbing fact has emerged—the pandemic has put women and children everywhere at higher risk of exploitation, abuse and trafficking:

  • By making it more difficult to assist both current victims and survivors.
  • By heightening insecurity of victims as government and philanthropic funds are refocused on other priorities and personnel are diminished.
  • By making it more challenging to ensure a sustained and robust criminal justice response.
  • By prevalence spikes in “grooming” by predators of children who are not able to attend school and who are online now more than ever—all of us especially parents must talk with their kids and empower them to know the signs and resist.

And as we emerge from the pandemic, we need to prepare for and redouble our efforts to prevent and prosecute a likely explosion of pent-up predator demand.

We need to do more to protect children.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) one in four trafficking victims are children.

In 2019, I authored the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Act to educate school staff to recognize and respond to signs of sex and labor trafficking and to provide age-appropriate information to students on how to avoid becoming a victim.

Such programs are a critically important way to inform, enlighten—and warn—our young people, making them situationally aware and hopefully preventing and reducing the number of future victims.

Situation awareness training, as you know, has made hotel, airline, bus, truck and train personnel more likely to recognize and thwart human trafficking.

Women and girls, as you know, are disproportionately abused by forced labor and account for the majority of the victims in the commercial sex industry.

However, a 2013 report from ECPAT-USA titled “And boys too”, concluded that the “scope of the commercial exploitation of boys is vastly underreported.”

A2016 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice, found that up to 36 percent of the children forced into the U.S. sex industry were male.

Finally, in 2008, I introduced International Megan’s Law. It passed the House in 2010, 2014, 2016—and, thankfully, finally cleared the United States Senate and was signed into law in 2016—eight years later!

Megan Kanka from my hometown of Hamilton was just 7 years old when she was kidnapped, raped, and brutally murdered in 1994. Her assailant lived across the street. Unbeknownst to her family and other residents in the neighborhood, he was a convicted repeat child sex offender.

Megan’s heartbroken-to-this-day parents—Maureen and Richard Kanka—have been amazingly effective, courageous and heroic in successfully pushing every state in the union including New Jersey to enact Megan’s Law.

Why International Megan’s Law?  We know from law enforcement, academia and media documentation that Americans on the U.S. sex offender registries are frequently caught sexually abusing children in Asia, Central and South America, Europe, and, frankly, everywhere.

The inherent secrecy of international travel enables child exploitation.

Now, under International Megan’s Law—a major prevention strategy—convicted child sex offenders who travel abroad must provide notice to the U.S. Government—via the Angel Watch Center—prior to departure of all planned destinations. Failure to do so carries a significant jail term commensurate with a convicted child sex abuser not reporting to local law enforcement.  Upon receipt of the travel itinerary, the U.S. government informs the destination country or countries of those plans.

The destination country or countries are then empowered with actionable information to render the child predator inadmissible.  To date, more than 13,000 notifications have been made with 5,500 convicted child sex offenders denied entry.

Concerned that some may fail to include their true destination when filing—and out of an abundance of caution and concern for kids—their passports contain the following message that will not likely go unnoticed by border agents: “The bearer was convicted of a sex offense against a minor and is a covered sex offender pursuant to 22 United States Code Section 212(b).”

The Act also created a new policy of reciprocity—an attempt to get other countries to warn us when a convicted pedophile plans to travel to the United States, empowering us to deny entry.

To conclude, so much has been accomplished by each of you.

But the enormous challenge before us is to not grow weary in doing good, but through prayer and fasting constantly renew our hope in God, continue as you have to show much love and empathy for the weakest and most vulnerable as we all commit to ‘run with endurance the race fixed before us.’

Read online here.