The Trump administration has made great strides against human trafficking, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a Friday speech before the Department of Justice's Human Trafficking Summit, and remains committed to combating the changing face of a crime that victimizes thousands of people each year.
Human trafficking represents a serious transnational threat. The Department of State reported there were some 66,000 victims of trafficking nationwide in 2016; down 11,000 from 2015, but up 22,000 from the preceding year (variances may partially be a function of reporting). In his speech, Sessions noted "the FBI estimated at one point that [trafficking] was the third-largest criminal activity in the world after drugs and counterfeiting."
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Sessions's speech capped off January, which President Donald Trump previously designated National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. That month also saw Trump's signing of the Combating Human Trafficking in Commercial Vehicles Act and the No Human Trafficking on Our Roads Act, both focused on limiting human trafficking through federal law.
Sessions explained that, based on the administration's commitment to fighting human trafficking, his Justice Department brought a record number of human trafficking cases over the last year, totaling more than 550. Those cases ran the spectrum of human trafficking offenses, including "labor trafficking, sex trafficking, exploiting minors and adults, U.S. citizens, legal guest workers, and illegal aliens." Over the same period, DOJ investigations led to the conviction of nearly 500 human traffickers.
DOJ investigations also lead to the freeing of victims of human trafficking. That included, Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand noted in her opening remarks, some 84 children in a single, nationwide operation last fall. These successes, Brand noted, were the product of more than $47 million in DOJ grants directed towards anti-trafficking efforts in 2017.
At the same time, however, Sessions cautioned the shape of human trafficking may be shifting.
"We now face the problem of human traffickers using the internet," he said. "Every day in America, criminals use online advertisements to sell trafficking victims for sex. The websites that host the advertisements act with near impunity."
He expressed special concern about a seeming increase in sex trafficking of children.
"There are signs that this industry is changing," Sessions said. "From 2010 to 2015, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported a ninefold increase in reports of suspected child sex trafficking, an increase which they think is related to the use of the internet."
"These numbers should be a wake-up call for us," he said.
Concerns about the trafficking of immigrants, especially across the Mexican border, have motivated the Justice Department's renewed focus on human trafficking in general, Sessions noted.
"This is another reason why we must finally secure our Southern Border," Sessions said of fighting human trafficking. "Traffickers and coyotes see our porous border as an opportunity that they can exploit for profit. And they exploit this weakness in our security all too easily."
A CNN analysis noted that would-be illegal immigrants die with some frequency while attempting to cross the border, with 322 dying in 2016. "Virtually all" of those attempting illegal border crossings are led by human smugglers, CNN noted.
Combatting cross-border smuggling has been a major priority of the United States' partnership with Mexico, which Sessions said has led to more than 50 prosecutions, including eight members of a Mexican prostitution ring.
"We worked tirelessly with our Mexican counterparts to successfully extradite five of the defendants to stand trial in the United States," Sessions said of the ring, "sending the clear message that the United States will pursue criminals to the ends of the earth in the name of justice."