Imagine a child somewhere in the world who was born into lonely and difficult circumstances. Lacking the support of a stable family, she was left to find food and shelter wherever she could. One day, an opportunity came along that gave her hope. A man approached her offering work in return for a place to stay, and she went with him eagerly.
Soon it became clear this man was not as friendly as he first seemed. The girl found herself transported against her will to a strange country where she did not know the language, the people, or the customs. For years, she was forced to work day and night for no money. She had her identifying documents taken from her, was systematically denied basic rights, and was even – darkest of all – sold for the purpose of sexual abuse.
Most people who hear a terrible story like this would imagine this girl held in a faraway country. They would assume that if such a heartbreaking incident were ever discovered in America, surely it would make national news, spark a Twitter hashtag, and lead to widespread public outcry. Yet this is not the case.
While reliable statistics do not exist due to the large volume of crimes that are never discovered, we know that many thousands of men, women and children are trafficked within the United States every year for labor or sexual exploitation. Human trafficking amounts to nothing less than modern day slavery.
Since I arrived in the Senate, I have made combatting this issue a top priority. My wife Jeanette and I are passionate about ending human trafficking because we know how prevalent the issue is in Miami and throughout the state of Florida. Traffickers prey on the large number of teenage runaways and the many immigrants desperate for work in our state.
My goal in the Senate from day one has been to work on trafficking from all angles – domestic and international, labor and sexual – and to take a holistic approach to combatting it by focusing on prevention, protection and prosecution. I have been active by crafting several major pieces of legislation, appealing for restitution for victims, and calling attention to the issue on the community, national, and international levels.
I co-sponsored a major piece of legislation that was signed into law in March of 2013 called the Trafficking Victims Protection Re-Authorization Act. This bill authorized the majority of the federal government’s trafficking work, including providing resources for survivors and new tools for prosecutors, and enhancing our work with other nations to prevent trafficking.
I have also called for the U.S. government to use the tools provided by the above legislation to punish governments that fail to address the rampant trafficking within their borders. I believe on the issue of modern day slavery, like so many other moral crises, America must lead the charge for change. Doing so is not just our ability, it is our responsibility.
Yet before we can cooperate with other nations on this issue, we must learn to cooperate in a bipartisan fashion here at home.
In the 113th Congress, I sponsored the Strengthening Child Welfare Response to Trafficking Act, and have now reintroduced a version of it as an amendment to a bill currently on the Senate floor. Sadly, that bill is now being held up by partisan gridlock. Of all the issues that should be above the trivialities of partisanship, I believe human trafficking should inspire a special kind of solidarity.
Cooperation is also important outside the halls of Congress. For while government action has power to turn the tide on this issue, the most important way to combat trafficking is to raise awareness in our communities. We must understand trafficking is not just a crisis ‘somewhere else.’
A recent bust in Florida provided insight into the tragic extent of the problem. Captive women were found in everyday homes in everyday neighborhoods throughout the state. Neighbors had no idea that men were entering these homes on a continuous loop throughout the day for the purpose of abusing young women and girls, most of whom were regularly drugged, starved, and beaten.
My hope is that the American people will become more aware of this issue and feel pulled toward action. By raising awareness, our voices will not only reach more Americans, but also victims who may be afraid to self-identify. These women and men might not know what the laws are in America, what our stance is toward their situation, or who they can trust to help.
A unified front in Congress and among our people has the potential to end the nightmares of thousands of victims, including many very much like the example of the young girl taken here against her will.
Perhaps years have passed since she was first brought to America. Living life as a captive in the shadows, she has held on and endured. If she hears our voices, maybe the hope of a better life will come back to this young woman. Maybe she will understand that our country is full of people who care deeply about her suffering, and that somewhere beyond that wall of despair in front of her, there is healing, there is hope, and there is freedom.