Law school sets sights on human trafficking: justice for the vulnerable

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Law school sets sights on human trafficking: justice for the vulnerable

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Courtesy of SLU Law

“We need to address how we talk about trafficking. It’s nothing like the movie ‘Taken,’” remarked John Richmond, a special litigation counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit, during his opening address at the SLU Law School’s “Perspectives on Fighting Human Trafficking” symposium, on Friday, Jan. 30.

An estimated 100 people, lawyers, law students, professors, community activists and law enforcement, personnel gathered in the sun-basked John K. Pruellage courtroom to listen to numerous professionals who specialize in human trafficking cases, regarding the unique approach needed to combat human trafficking crime.

Richmond’s address primarily focused on the legislative problems faced by prosecuting attorneys.  Interestingly enough, human trafficking cases violate the 15th Amendment, which regulates interstate commerce; therefore prosecutors must prove trafficked victims crossed state lines.  In addition, prosecutors must depict cohesion by the defendant, preventing the trafficked victim from leaving.  Richmond mentioned various methods employed by traffickers to prevent victims from leaving, including the use of drugs, withholding of wages and physical and mental abuse.  Richmond, as well as the other panelists, stressed the importance of maintaining the focus of all human trafficking cases to the victims, or “survivors,” as panelist and FBI agent Derek Stigerts preferred to call individuals removed from human trafficking rings.

Seven panelists offered their personal experiences working with human trafficking victims and emphasizing the widespread problem of human trafficking across all areas of the world, including many different ethnicities and socioeconomic classes. Stigerts, in union with two panelists, attorneys Alexandra Levy and Monica Stump, noted that stereotypes of human trafficking victims, especially victims of sex trafficking, enforce the belief that mainly “11-year-old females” in large metropolitan areas are more likely to be forced into the commercial sex trade.  However, the majority of females in sex trafficking cases are between the ages of 16 and 19 years old.  Stigerts stated that the older a victim is, the harder they are to find in the illegal sex and labor industries.

While recovering a victim remains a daunting problem for law enforcement officials, an entirely new set of problems emerges once a victim is taken into protective custody.  Panelists Elizabeth Campbell, an assistant law professor at the University of Michigan-Human Trafficking Clinic works with individuals who may have criminal histories or substance abuse problems stemming from their exploitation as a trafficking victim.  Campbell’s clinic “diverts them [the victims] away from jail, and offer them state-funded services in the form of substance abuse treatment, trauma counseling, job-readiness skills, and access to legal clinics for free legal services.”  She noted to the audience that simply removing the victims from the immediate danger of human trafficking, fails to protect the individuals from problems in the aftermath of victimization, and the legal system’s inability to provide comprehensive services to victims should be met by private sector advocacy groups to prevent individuals from re-entering the court system.

Apart from sex trafficking, several of the panelists spoke on the human labor trafficking problems throughout the world, especially in developing nations like India.  Eric Ha, a counselor for the International Justice Mission, recounted the difficulty he faces in apprehending labor traffickers in India, especially in the absence of a well-functioning legal system.  Likewise, Miguel Keberlein of the Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group, and Chris Rukey from Husch Blackwell legal firm, spoke of the human trafficking systems present in the agricultural and manufacturing industries.

Keberlein touched briefly on the large numbers of agricultural laborers from Latin America, who work seasonally in the U.S., and face harsh working conditions and low pay with the threat of deportation being used as a means of cohesion.  Rukey implored the audience to investigate clothing, food and service companies and support the corporations that promote adequate pay and human working conditions for laborers; he expressed belief in the idea that “companies listen to their customers,” and consumers have the power to effect change in human labor laws.

Concluding the symposium, the panelists agreed that ending human trafficking requires the “cooperation of law enforcement, the government, social services, education [of the public] and companies,” and the fight is far from being over.