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Denver Homeland Security official asks Congress to help human trafficking victims

Author: Tom Ramstack - September 27, 2018 - Updated: October 15, 2018

(Gwengoat, istockphoto)

WASHINGTON — A Denver-based U.S. Homeland Security Department official supported legislation requiring more assistance for human trafficking victims during a congressional hearing Wednesday.

Many of the victims are severely traumatized when law officers extract them from forced labor or the sex trade, according to expert witnesses at a U.S. House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing.

They need “victim assistance specialists” to counsel them and help them to recover, said Steve Cagen, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations’ (HSI) Denver office.

“I’ve got a four-state region: Utah, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming,” Cagen said. “For HSI, I got one victim assistance specialist.”

His federal agency investigates more than 1,000 human trafficking cases per year.

“I need at least one [victim assistance specialist] per state,” Cagen said.

The congressional border and maritime security subcommittee convened the hearing to review the federal government’s efforts to combat human trafficking. Witnesses from the Justice Department and Homeland Security Department testified about how they investigate and prosecute human trafficking perpetrators.

“They’re all driven by greed,” Cagen said.

Congress is preparing to vote on the Traffic Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which would continue legislation enacted 18 years ago to halt human trafficking. The original law organized a task force from several federal agencies to coordinate the efforts.

Other portions of the law gave illegal immigrants who were human trafficking victims protection from deportation if they cooperated with investigators. The law also authorized the task force to work with foreign governments to stop human trafficking before it reached the U.S. border. Most of the international effort focused on Mexico.

The proposal for reauthorizing funding and management of the law includes a provision for increasing the number of victim assistance specialists from 27 to more than 100.

The specialists are supposed to accompany law enforcement officers when they make arrests and track down victims. The specialists are tasked with ensuring that victims’ rights are protected, that they’re advised about participating in prosecutions, and that they’re referred to community service agencies that can help them.

The “Victim Assistance Program” Cagen described has some similarities to the Colorado Human Trafficking Council organized by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2015. It joins efforts of law enforcement and community groups, such as the Colorado Network to End Human Trafficking, the Colorado Trafficking and Organized Crime Coalition, and the Front Range Anti-Trafficking Coalition.

In its 2017 annual report, the Colorado Human Trafficking Council reported that prosecutors filed charges in 97 cases of alleged human trafficking, resulting in 23 convictions. The average prison sentence was 48.9 years and the median sentence was 17.

Other Colorado organizations that attempt to stay aware of warning signs of human trafficking include school districts.

“Collectively, School District 11 does not provide internal training for spotting the signs of human trafficking among students,” said Devra K. Ashby, public information officer for Colorado Springs School District 11. “However, when outside resources or trainings are shared with the district, we do make our employees aware of those opportunities.”

School districts might be more aggressive in spotting problems with greater government assistance, she said.

“It would be beneficial for Congress to provide additional funding and curriculum for school counselors, nurses and psychologists to have in-depth training on this topic,” Ashby told Colorado Politics.

Arizona Republican U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, who chairs the border and maritime security subcommittee, said human trafficking is not confined to underprivileged persons.

“The truth is that traffickers do not discriminate when it comes to their victims,” McSally said. “Victims can come from any background or be of any age, like a teenage girl who ran away from home, only to be beaten, drugged and forced to walk the streets. The migrant worker who paid a smuggler to help him cross the border, only to be forced into manual labor. Or an elderly woman, lured by the promise of work in America and forced to spend endless hours cleaning the mansion of her captors.”

Last year, the advocacy group Human Trafficking Institute reported 783 active human trafficking cases in the U.S. federal court system. In 55 percent of the cases, the victims were children being used for sex, McSally said.

Tom Ramstack

Tom Ramstack