Last week, Senate Republicans made headlines as the new Republican-controlled chamber passed 100 days in the 114th Congress. By many measures, the Senate seems to be back in business.
In just the past few weeks, Congress passed a bill reforming the flawed Medicare payments system with the “Doc Fix” bill. The same day, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously sent a bill to the floor that would give Congress a vote on the potential deal with Iran. And last week, Trade Promotion Authority legislation was introduced, which will ensure the United States gets the best possible deal in ongoing trade negotiations.
But for all our accomplishments, I am happiest to report that the Senate is doing what it should to help the most vulnerable among us.
The evil of human trafficking is not something that everyone wants to talk about. It is an embarrassment that today in the United States, we still deal with such disgusting practices as human slavery across all 50 states.
Thousands of young girls, many of middle school age, are trapped in a life of bondage where they are abused and sold for sex every day. This is unconscionable, and as the father of two daughters, it is utterly heartbreaking to hear the stories of these survivors who are trapped in modern-day slavery.
In recent years, Texas has become all too familiar with the issue. According to the Texas Attorney General’s office, almost 20 percent of all U.S. trafficking victims travel through our state. Sadly, a study conducted by Free the Captives, a nonprofit organization focused on stamping out human trafficking, indicated that Houston stands out as a major hub for sex trafficking.
When I was home earlier this month, I was encouraged by the work of many groups in the state bravely and diligently fighting the scourge of human trafficking, and providing support for victims who are trying to recover from a life of slavery. I visited with organizations and individuals who are leading the charge to defend these victims, including Houston-based Children at Risk, and held events with technology groups like Google, who are harnessing the power of innovative technologies to save those trapped in the shadows.
I am thankful that Texas boasts many advocacy groups that champion the rights of these victims. But more is needed to take that fighting spirit to the rest of the country.
And this week, we made progress.
After months of lively negotiations with my Democratic colleagues, we passed the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. In the end, both sides came together to pass bipartisan legislation vital to the health and recovery of victims, and necessary to bring justice to their captors.
This bill is designed to provide the thousands of victims of sexual exploitation, slavery and human trafficking crucial resources to place them on a path of healing and restoration. Importantly, it allows those who have been sold into slavery to be treated as victims instead of criminals. Under the measure, a special fund will be created to ensure these victims get the shelter and services they need, to ensure a fresh start to a new life of freedom.
The legislation will strengthen law enforcement tools to help authorities rescue victims and take down human traffickers and the organized criminal networks who support them. It will also target the demand side of the equation by punishing those who seek to purchase people.
As a lawmaker, but more important as a father, husband and citizen of this great country, I feel I have a responsibility to protect our nation’s most vulnerable. I am pleased that once again we have come together to solve a major problem facing our country: human trafficking.
We can always do more to advocate and serve those who have been affected by abuse and exploitation. Our work is not finished. We must continue to fight until all children are free from the threat posed by this heinous crime.
Editor’s Note: This op-ed first appeared in the Houston Chronicle on April 25, 2015.