by Philip Wegmann
In a press conference last week that lasted nearly two hours, President Biden expressed frustration with efforts by the opposition party to thwart the more ambitious aspects of his policy agenda.
“Think about this: What are Republicans for?” Biden said defiantly. “What are they for? Name me one thing they’re for.” For instance, the president then asked, “What do you think their position on human rights is?”
At least one Republican with possible national ambitions has a response. The GOP answer to human rights concerns here at home, rejoins Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, is much tougher legislation against human trafficking in all its forms.
Congress is expected to reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act this year, and Hawley, RealClearPolitics is first to report, plans to introduce a host of reforms to strike harder at human traffickers while also providing new support for victims as they try to get back on their feet.
“We are a nation of liberators, and the fight against global slavery is an urgent fight that needs leadership right now. It’s not going to happen without leadership from the United States of America,” Hawley said in an interview, citing the need to set an example domestically for the rest of the world.
“The number of people trapped in global slavery has been going up, not down. It is truly a scourge that continues to affect us in this country, to impact our own children, whether we’re talking about sex trafficking, or labor trafficking,” he continued.
According to State Department estimates, 24.9 million people are exploited worldwide at any time, a number that includes victims within the United States. Hence, argues Hawley, the need for greater consequences for human traffickers who compel both forced labor and commercial sex work.
Hawley’s office has spent months preparing an “all of the above” strategy to combat what the first-term senator described as “a pernicious crime that persists in the shadows.” Just last week, for instance, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina brought charges against individuals for conspiring to traffic seasonal farm workers, allegedly failing to pay their wages, forcing them to work excessively long hours, and confiscating their passports.
Advocates warn that the last charge, illegally holding immigration documents, is an all-too-common practice used by traffickers to tether migrants to work. Currently, however, seizing a passport is an offense punishable by a year in prison.
Hawley told RCP that, if he had it his way, “I’d bump it up to 20 years.”
Longer prison sentences are just one part of the strategy. The lawmaker who previously served as Missouri attorney general says his proposals are informed by his experience at the state and local level. His legislation provides $50 million in effective anti-trafficking training to law enforcement officials at those levels, which Hawley calls “the real tip of the spear.”
Another proposal would allow the U.S. attorney general to designate certain counties “high intensity human trafficking areas” after being petitioned by a coalition of local law enforcement entities, and it would provide $350 million in funding to surge federal manpower and resources to those areas.
Harsher penalties and increases in police funding are on brand for Republicans, who pride themselves as being tough on crime. But Hawley also plans to introduce legislation aimed at helping victims who escaped exploitation remain free and restart their lives. One proposal would provide $1 billion to the Department of Housing and Urban Development to expand housing options for victims. Another would direct $100 million to the Small Business Administration to provide zero-interest loans to them.
An inexpensive initiative “in the grand scheme of things,” according to Hawley, he believes that these kinds of loans would represent a small step toward helping victims “get back up on their feet and restore their credit, an opportunity to undo some of this damage that’s been done to them as a victim and reenter society and have a chance at being independent and at restoring their good name.”
President Biden recently renewed the designation of January as National Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and his administration also released an action plan to combat this crime with a new emphasis on gender and racial equity. Hawley’s effort also comes as the White House continues to complain about the lack of a bipartisan spirit on Capitol Hill. The Show Me State lawmaker doesn’t make much of that gripe, and he dismissed the broadside from Biden during last week’s press conference as another “lecture” from the White House.
“Here we are a year into his presidency, and he still has not taken some of the most basic steps,” Hawley said, noting that Biden still hasn’t appointed anyone to lead the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. “This has not been a priority for this administration,” he added. “And that’s the nicest way to put it.”
An outspoken critic of unchecked power in Silicon Valley, Hawley previously introduced legislation that would give victims of sex trafficking the right to sue for compensation if intimate photos or videos of them were shared online without their consent. The new spate of anti-trafficking reforms continues in that spirit, and Hawley argues that this tough stance follows from the fundamental character of America and the American people.
“The United States has tremendous moral capital to bring to bear here on this fight — our own struggle with it in our country, our history struggling to end slavery in this country, struggling to secure freedom to all of our people and all of our citizens,” he said. “All of this positions us to be a leader worldwide, and to say, ‘We have not accepted slavery or servitude in our country. We’re not willing to partner with it in any way around the globe.’”
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Philip Wegmann is a contributor to RealClearPolitics.