Op-Ed: Fixing human trafficking by fighting for freedom
There is no greater assault on human dignity and liberty in the United States of America than human trafficking. Although the buying and selling of human beings by other human beings was ostensibly outlawed over a hundred years ago, in reality it has continued — and festered.
The Department of Health and Human Services says that almost 200,000 transactions are made annually in the United States in which minors are sold for sex, and the Department of State estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 people are brought into the United States to be trafficked every year.
It’s a revolting reality — and it’s one that we must fight to eradicate as quickly as possible. Human trafficking is a scourge on any nation that permits it, but it is particularly appalling in a country that prides itself on promoting liberty and justice for all. We can — and must — do all we can to end it.
Fortunately, remarkable progress has been made in the last several decades to end this scourge. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 categorized trafficking as a federal crime, and the reauthorization acts that followed it have tightened the laws to bring justice more swiftly to those who perpetrate trafficking. On the state level, Missouri in particular has distinguished itself for its hard fight against this evil practice, creating a task force dedicated to eliminating trafficking from the state.
These efforts are good, but they are — and will continue to be — insufficient. In 2015, the Department of Justice convicted a mere 297 human traffickers — less than 1 percent of the almost 200,000 annual transactions. From a law enforcement and legal perspective, police training and vacatur laws that wipe the records of trafficking survivors can help. And the work of churches and nonprofit groups that help victims find healing and support must be expanded and encouraged. But to really address the root issue of this problem, we can’t ignore a crucial — albeit difficult — aspect.
As a nation, we must consider whether in our zeal to purge the problem, we haven’t inadvertently created an environment in which this kind of market can flourish. Because prostitution is illegal, victims of trafficking often wind up getting prosecuted for crimes they were made to commit against their will. A 2013 study from the McGeorge School of Law documents a particularly horrifying case, brought to court in New York v. Gonzalez. Sylvia Gonzalez, a Brazilian woman trying to avoid deportation, was lured into human trafficking by a woman who said she would assist Sylvia with the immigration process. Sylvia received 86 convictions for prostitution or for loitering with the intent of prostitution.
This is what happens when the government tries to legislate an individual’s choices. We made the same mistake just over a century ago with Prohibition. In both cases, the government was simply trying to defend the innocent victims (most often women and children) of alcoholic and abusive husbands — a particularly important effort in a day and age when women’s legal rights were extremely limited.
But the resulting prohibition didn’t — and doesn’t — work. Then, just as now, prisons were clogged with otherwise innocent people who made a personal choice that didn’t hurt others and didn’t deserve to be incarcerated. Then, just as now, government expenditures skyrocketed in an attempt to enforce these laws. And then, just as now, outlawing certain activities created an underground that veiled the activities and made them far more dangerous. Deaths from drinking unregulated alcohol went up, just as outlawing prostitution makes it impossible to control the spread of STIs, with their lifelong physical and emotional consequences.
This might not be a polite or popular approach toward this issue, but it is the only consistent one. The solution then is the solution now — give adults the freedom to make their own choices about what they do with their own bodies. And the moment those choices hurt others, have a system in place that fights for and defends the victims. By decriminalizing prostitution, we give people back their innate right to make choices and we pull back the curtain on a dangerous underworld, making it safe for those who choose to engage in it. And we make it so that victims like Sylvia can go to court and hold those that hurt her and infringed on her freedom accountable without fear of being prosecuted for crimes committed under duress.
At its core, this is a question about liberty and human freedom. The federal government has no more business telling an adult where and how they can make their money than it does telling an adult where and how they can worship, study or spend.
If elected, I will fight for the rights of individual states and individual citizens to make their own decisions about their faith, their wallets and their bodies. I will also bring the full weight of the law down on those who seek to control the faith, wallets and bodies of others. But ultimately, opening the doors for liberty makes it far, far easier to expose those who seek to steal and destroy the liberty of others.