Human trafficking still a problem for Houston
As chairman of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, I have participated in many hearings regarding the threats that face our nation, but no hearing has been more powerful than the recent discussion about one of the biggest threats to our children from within our own borders - human trafficking.
In March, we held a hearing on the issue of human trafficking at Texas Southern University. We heard from courageous survivors of this crime - individuals who emerged from an unconceivable web of violence and have made it their life's mission to rescue others. We also heard from the state, local and federal law enforcement officials who work tirelessly to combat the recruitment and exploitation of men, women and children in Houston.
Sadly, many of the things that make Houston an attractive place to live and do business also make it a major hub for human trafficking. The metropolitan area of Houston, which contains nearly 6 million people, has a thriving international community, the second busiest port in the country and is a major center for commerce not far from the Mexican border. It is known for hosting high-profile events, including the Super Bowl, which it will again host in 2017.
There are many misconceptions about human trafficking, including that it mostly happens overseas, but in fact it is a growing criminal industry here in the United States that generates billions of dollars for its perpetrators every year.
Enticing tactics trap women, men and children into prostitution rings or manual labor. Children, who should be in school, are held captive and forced into manual labor along with their parents in order to satisfy exorbitant illegal debts to traffickers that they can never hope to repay. Some are brought here from abroad with the promise of freedom and opportunity; some are abandoned or homeless or runaways.
According to the Office of the Texas Attorney General, 700 human trafficking related incidents involving nearly 800 victims were reported from 2007 to 2012 in Texas alone.
Across the country, hundreds of thousands of children become victims of sex trafficking every year.
Tragically, the average age of entry into sex trafficking is 12 to 13 years old. As a father of five, including two 12-year-old daughters, I was shocked to hear this. It was particularly heart wrenching to hear that many victims of human trafficking feel invisible and forgotten.
I commend the work of Cheryl Briggs, a trafficking survivor and founder of a rehabilitation ranch in Spring, and Kathryn Griffin-Townsend, a trafficking survivor and founder of the "We've Been There Done That" Organization in Houston, for providing a voice for and a place of refuge for victims.
This is also being addressed through policy.
In Texas, we're cracking down on traffickers and making great strides towards combating this growing threat.
In 2003, Texas was one of the leading states to enact a robust state trafficking law while also forming a task force to combat trafficking and to rescue and restore victims. And in Houston, the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance brings together a range of law enforcement and victims service partners that traditionally would not have the opportunity to work together.
Despite this collaboration, human trafficking is still far too prevalent and requires a coordinated effort from every available organization and resource to fight the problem.
I am proud to co-sponsor Houston Congressman Ted Poe's End Sex Slavery Act and his Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. These bills will address a number of gaps in human trafficking laws and provide much-needed support to victims.
Still, more must be done to educate parents, provide shelter to victims and to go after traffickers and their clients.
While many issues will go on being debated in Washington, this is an issue where we can all agree.
It is our duty to combat human trafficking with every measure at our disposal in order to protect our children and our country. Together, we have both an obligation and the ability to do more.