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Anti-trafficking laws and other ways to combat modern slavery: Ambassador Luis CdeBaca offers insights

In a Q&A, the ambassador discusses anti-trafficking legislation, the victim-centered approach and ways everyone can do their part to continue the fight against human slavery.

Ambassador Luis CdeBaca: "At the end of the day, the traffickers are taking away people’s ability to make choices."
MinnPost photo by Rita Kovtun

As the world celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the battle against human trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery, continues to wage on as an estimated 27 million trafficking victims worldwide are being held against their will. With initiatives such as the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth Act going into effect in Minnesota in 2014 — which Sen. Amy Klobuchar recently announced she plans to take to the national scale — and the No Wrong Door model to help young victims of sex trafficking, for which lawmakers approved $2.8 million, things may be looking up.

Ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca, of the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, is the leader the government has entrusted to coordinate this effort on the national level. CdeBaca, who grew up in Iowa, has dedicated his career to fighting modern-day slavery. Even with major achievements — he served as lead trial counsel in the largest slavery prosecution, United States v. Kil Soo Lee, in U.S. history; helped pass the 2000 Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act [PDF], the first initiative to address trafficking in the country; and served as an integral part of developing the United States’ victim-centered approach to combating trafficking — CdeBaca realizes there is still much work left to do.

On a recent Minnesota trip to speak at a Women’s Foundation of Minnesota conference, CdeBaca found time — between visits with the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center and the Statewide Human Trafficking Task Force, and talks at the William Mitchell College of Law and the U of M’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs — to talk with MinnPost last week, sharing his insights about anti-trafficking legislation, the victim-centered approach and ways everyone can do their part to fight against human slavery. Here is a condensed version of the conversation.

MinnPost: To start off with a current event, what insight can you offer regarding Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s announcement to take Minnesota’s Safe Harbor law national?

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Ambassador Luis CdeBaca: I haven’t seen the final legislation yet, but my sense is that she’s looking to have the Justice Department and others give technical assistance to states so they will adopt the Safe Harbor laws, and that she’ll have some financial incentive for the states. There’s program funding that they would cease to get if they didn’t do these laws. I can’t speak to that approach – it’s not something that we at the State Department would be in the middle of – but I think the overarching approach, which is to try to take the Safe Harbor law and get it out there into the public consciousness and move it across the country, is definitely an idea that this time has come, and I’m glad to see that Sen. Klobuchar would do that. I think she has the experience from having been a prosecutor herself. She’s very pragmatic, yet this is really kind of a wide-open type of thinking; rather than just kind of let it trickle out over time, why not juice it a little bit with some federal effort behind it.

What I think will end up happening, and this is the good thing, is there’ll be 50 different solutions that hopefully will be specific to the needs of the particular states. A one-size-fits-all situation is good for the concept of Safe Harbor, but I do think every state has a different Child Protective Services system, for instance, so the interplay between the Safe Harbor law and Child Protective Services might have to look different in Florida or Mississippi than it does here in Minnesota. That’s going to be the challenge.

MP: As part of the Safe Harbor legislation, the No Wrong Door model, introduced this past January, secured $2.8 million of the $13.5 million its advocates requested. How effective will No Wrong Door be in addressing the problem of trafficking in Minnesota?

LC: It goes to what I said about the interplay between systems. It looks at the fact that it shouldn’t matter whether the kid presents as a drug-addicted or a runaway homeless youth, or sexual-abuse victim or any of those things. Right now we often see this silo. The way youth first start getting service is because you have an addiction, then you’re always going to be programmed to the addiction counselors, whose grant or support from the state is for addiction services. But if you had come in as a sexual-abuse victim, then you’d be dealt with by someone totally different whose grant is for sexual abuse. So I think the No Wrong Door approach recognizes that girl isn’t defined by the silos or the bureaucratic funding streams of the people that she’s working with. She’s defined by who she is, not by who and how people are getting paid. I think it’s a really good idea.

MP: What about not getting all of $13.5 million?

LC: What I’ve heard over the last two days is a lot of folks concerned that they weren’t able to get the funding levels they think would be necessary to fully implement Safe Harbor. The Legislature, to its credit, put up [$2.8] million, but then it’s still a long way to go to what the advocates are saying is necessary. My sense is they’re going to go back to the Legislature and they’re going to keep asking. Good for them.

MP: The victim-centered approach, something you played a key role in helping develop, is a large part of this new legislation that aims to change the way we perceive and deal with trafficking. Is this different from the Nordic model?

LC: The Nordic model is specific to Europe, where the purchasers of commercial sex in almost every European country for the last 150 years have not been considered to be committing a crime. Typically, the only thing that’s a crime in Europe in most countries is being a pimp and living off the person in prostitution. The person prostituting and the client – that’s not illegal in Europe. In the United States, the pimp, the client and the person being prostituted are, traditionally, all three seen as committing a crime. The Safe Harbor legislation and the anti-trafficking model in the U.S. basically exempts out child prostitutes and adult prostitutes who are being held through coercive force, so those people are not committing a crime. They’re victims. That’s within the U.S. context. The European context, since the sex buyers in most of these countries aren’t doing anything illegal, the Nordic model was [meant] to criminalize that.

About 10 years ago, for the first time in modern history in the European context, it was illegal to try to buy sex. It’s not illegal to sell it. It’s an interesting approach in that there are women working as prostitutes in Sweden who do it for a living and pay taxes, but the clients that they have are committing a crime. The women themselves are not. When we’re talking about the Nordic model, that’s what we’re talking about.

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MP: So where do those being trafficked, not prostituting themselves, fit into the Europe model?

LC: Those people are counted as trafficking victims – and there’s a lot of trafficking in Europe. The reality of the Nordic countries is that there’s a lot of human trafficking there just like there is in countries where prostitution is legal. It doesn’t matter under the United Nations protocol on human trafficking whether you have the U.S. model, the Nordic model or a continental model where basically nobody except for the pimp is getting flak. In all three of those different approaches, the human traffickers are there, and you’ve got to catch the traffickers and you’ve got to help the victims.

Now, the victim-centered approach is different from the Nordic model. The Nordic model is a way of regulating prostitution. The victim-centered approach is wholly within the trafficking sphere. What it basically says is that rehabilitation of the victim and the victim’s ability to make choices have to be as important as the needs of the state, the needs of prosecution, the needs of law enforcement — instead of predicating getting victim benefits on whether or not the prosecutor is going to take your case to court. That’s very not victim-centered – that’s very much going with the needs of the state as opposed to the needs of the survivor.

What we’re trying to do in the U.S. is to have that measure of survivor input policy. We’re trying to have the notion of decisions made by the victim be taken into account by the prosecutor and the police. At the end of the day, the traffickers are taking away people’s ability to make choices. If you’re enslaving me and making me work, then in some ways, when I get away from that, as part of the rehabilitative approach in the victim-centered model, introducing my ability to start making choices ends up being really important because the crime you committed against me is to take away my right to make choices. Having me be a partner in my therapeutic treatment plan instead of warehoused in a detention facility or relegated to some transitional shelter, getting me into government provided housing, getting me into an apartment, helping me get a job, allowing me to start making choices around my future, given that the trafficker denied me my ability to choose – I think that’s the hallmark of the victim-centered approach. Putting the victim’s needs and choices on the same level as that of the state.

MP: Does this mean the victim-centered approach originated in the United States?

LC: It happened in the United States and then we were able to get it enshrined into the Palermo protocol as part of the United Nations anti-trafficking convention in the year 2000. The U.S. model has the notion of non-prosecution for trafficking victims for things that traffickers made them do. The notion of long-term and short-term immigration relief. Those are all part of the victim-centered approach, and they’re now all part of international law because we’ve been pushing them out. This isn’t just me, this is very much Paula and Sheila Wellstone. This was one of Sen. Wellstone’s legacy pieces when he was in the Senate and a lot of it came out of what Sheila had seen in her activism and everything else. It’s that notion of having enough respect for the victims that you treat them like a partner rather than like they’re being acted upon.

MP: There are three other bills Minnesota congresspersons have proposed that are currently moving through the legislative process: the End Human Trafficking Act (H.R. 2805), the Child Sex Trafficking Data and Response Act (H.R. 2744) and the Human Trafficking Reporting Act (S. 413), but what is the probability that these smaller bills will pass? How important are they on their own?

LC: Everyone’s seen how productive this Congress has been as far as getting legislation to the president’s desk for signature. I do think that part of it is frankly, the [Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act] passed in February of this year. I think it was close to unanimous in both houses and it was a fairly complex and robust bill. Typically the trafficking bills get introduced and there’s enough of them to be one big trafficking bill and they all kind of go together. That clock got started this spring again when the last reauthorization had been in 2008, so it was the spring of 2013 before there was a reauthorization. There are good ideas out there that are being floated by a lot of folks and it’s really kind of too bad they didn’t get put out early enough that they could have been part of the legislative package for the reauthorization. I think it caught people by surprise that the reauthorization passed so quickly. On the Senate side, in order to get the votes for the Violence Against Women Act, the Sen. [Patrick] Leahy tacked the Violence Against Women Act onto the trafficking reauthorization because he knew that trafficking had a lot of bipartisan agreement – just like you see with Sen. Klobuchar and Sen. [John] Cornyn, co-sponsoring things together on human trafficking where they might not agree on other women’s issues. So there was a tactical decision that the senators made that said, “Use the trafficking bill,” which is more of a consensus way to get the Violence Against Women Act passed. And so, I think a lot of folks in the anti-trafficking community had thought that they would have a year, that 2013 would be a year when they were coming up with these ideas and putting them into place for the trafficking bill — and suddenly, they passed. But you know, with community activism, and people insisting on things, legislation can pass.

MP: If the return on investment for the amount spent by Minnesota taxpayers on the prevention of adolescent sex trading would be approximately $34 for every $1 and the FBI has identified the Twin Cities as one of the nation’s 13 largest centers for child prostitution, and additionally, 27 million people worldwide are being held against their will, what is generally standing in the way of anti-trafficking legislation getting passed?

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LC: Part of it is the other statistic [Sen.] Al Franken figured out during a hearing, I think it was last year, in the Judiciary Committee, when he divided the amount of money that we are given each year to fight trafficking around the world by 27 million [slaves]. Sen. Franken pointed out that if we were going to spend 72 cents per slave per year, not only is that not enough to feed and clothe them, and to get them rehabilitative services, it’s also not enough to train law enforcement, it’s not enough to have legislators from around the world, around the U.S. be able to get together and formulate best practices.

We do an awful lot with a very little amount of money and support, not only the president’s budget, which generally we send to Congress every year, but we’re sending that to Congress knowing that we’re in a time of great austerity as far as the federal government is concerned. And I think that our response has been to try to innovate, to do things like where people can confront the reality of their own involvement in human trafficking by answering the question, “How many slaves work for me?” That’s a perfect example because we only put a few hundred thousand dollars into it up front – it’s not one of these multimillion-dollar foreign-aid programs. But for only a few hundred thousand dollars, our web designers were able to come up with a really cutting-edge tool that Google and the eBay folks and others have picked up and started to fund. So if we can, through innovation, do things that the big guys, the philanthropists, the big companies can take those and run with it, I think we can stretch the federal dollars that much more. But I think that Sen. Franken’s point is well taken, which is: It’s pretty hard to fight slavery on 72 cents a year.

MP: The issue of trafficking of Native American women is more complicated than the broader issue because it is tied up in a history of cultural oppression. To what extent will the current legislation help the issue of Native American trafficking if passed? What will still need to be done?

LC: I think it’ll help in the notion of a rising tide full of tall ships. I think that when you have Safe Harbor legislation, then the police are starting to get trained to not think of these as small criminals, but instead thinking of the prostituted child as a trafficking victim. Hopefully that ends up having an impact in the parts of town or up in the various counties of sizable Native American population. It takes away one of the ways that people ignore the suffering of the Native groups. If law enforcement thinks that child prostitutes are just young criminals who need to be locked up, then how are they going to end up starting to feel the empathy for the Native American girl who’s in prostitution if they’ve already decided that she’s immoral? At least if you can take that out from under it, hopefully then the continued conversation of them being full participants and full members of society isn’t going to be dragged down by having them blamed for what was done to them.

I also think that the other thing we have to look at, for the rural tribes, the reservations, one of the things we heard from the [Native] community we met with was that there are overlapping jurisdictions between when you have mixed families and mixed communities on reservations, some of whom are Native American and some of whom are not, and then that means different law-enforcement agencies have jurisdiction maybe over three people in the same house. When you get a Native girl who’s been trafficked and abused by a non-Native, and it’s in Indian country, then where are the jurisdictional overlaps hurting our ability rather than helping our ability? And then when you get Native girls, and Native boys as well, who are being abused in this way down here in the Twin Cities, or in Duluth or other big towns, there is no tribal police down here. So the local police in the urban Indian setting has to do a better job of having culturally appropriate responses in a way that they may not if they’re trying to keep track of the difference between people from Somalia, and people from Cambodia, and the Hispanic immigrants and the Native Americans. If you’re in a multicultural society like here in the Twin Cities, you’re not going to be as culturally attuned to the needs of the Native American girls as if you’re a cop or a social worker up in Bemidji because you’re just not around Native culture as much. I think that’s one of the big needs, but it’s also emergency-room people, it’s the bus drivers, it’s the teachers – people need to be able to understand this is happening to Native children at a very high rate.

MP: So what can we as a community, as non-legislators, do to help?

LC: As much as we appreciate the hard work of our legislators, it’s like law enforcement – you can’t prosecute your way out of this problem. You can’t even legislate your way out of this problem. You have to have a society that kind of stands up simultaneously and says, “We’re tried of this.” I don’t want to contribute to slavery by not knowing where my shrimp was brought from and whether the men on those boats were enslaved. I don’t want to stay in a hotel that can’t tell me that their front desk staff and their concierges and their bellmen aren’t helping arrange prostitutes for the people, maybe the person who was in my room last night, before I checked in. I don’t want to stay in that place. I think that’s the thing, that we’ve got to get consumers to be able to say that and to not be afraid of saying that. Especially here in the upper Midwest – I grew up in Iowa – it’s very easy to be polite and to not want to talk about the thing that is upsetting. But if you can’t talk about slavery, if you can’t be mad about this, you can’t be mad about anything.

MP: Any last advice or food for thought?

LC: The thing I really urge your readers and everybody else is to do a bit of a self-assessment, not just by taking the slavery footprint tool, which they should. The other thing they need to do is a self-assessment of what can they do. I’m not saying what can they do as far as what you can do to end slavery. It’s rather, what can you do, what are you good at, what do you like to do? Somebody who likes construction can help at the shelters that need somebody to fix the roof. My father-in-law works at a women’s shelter in Ramsey County, and it’s important for the families – these are homeless families – to know that they’re in a clean place, which means no holes in the walls, and paint and everything else. That’s as important as having a psychologist. In some ways, it might be more important for a victim. If somebody’s a lawyer, they can use their legal skills to help victims file taxes or help try to get a person’s record expunged, because this wasn’t a crime that they committed – this was a crime that was done to them. If somebody’s a doctor or a dentist, they can volunteer; dental is one of the things we need more than anything for trafficking victims. If someone does financial services, helping people learn about financial literacy and budgeting.

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In other words, no matter what somebody does, there’s a trafficking survivor who needs that – that’s what people can do. Do what you do, but do it on behalf of the trafficking survivors. I think that would go a long way to solving the resource problem.

Rita Kovtun, a journalism student at the University of St. Thomas, is a HECUA intern at MinnPost.