My interest in the lives of slaves was in part sparked by that of my government. The 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) made it an American burden to fight slavery at home and created a State Department office to cajole foreign governments to do the same abroad. Today, that law is the subject of a fierce debate in Congress over the very definition of slavery.
To me, and to most others who study and assist real slaves, their plight is defined simply and terribly: They are those forced to work under threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence.
… Today, the search for absolution through abolition is far from over. Sens. Joe Biden, D-Del., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., have introduced a bill that would enhance the TVPA. They did so because, despite a legislative mandate, the Bush administration has thus far failed to prioritize the abolitionist fight. Abroad, though U.S. diplomatic pressure prompted over a hundred new laws on human trafficking, the resulting prosecutions did not diminish aggregate levels of slavery. At home, the Justice Department managed to free just 2 percent of the slaves it estimated were present within U.S. borders.
Part of the failure to free the slaves owes to the administration’s shallow allocation of resources. Domestically, though the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has adopted a victim-centered approach, local law-enforcement training has lagged, allowing traffickers to use victims’ fear of authority to keep them hidden.
… But another, fundamental reason for the failure owes to the diluted definitions among antitrafficking advocates over what constitutes slavery. Such vagueness has at times led to unfocused and lackluster government responses. Some hold that all underpaid workers are slaves, regardless of whether or not those laborers can leave their jobs freely.
… Others argue that all prostitutes are slaves. At the moment, a small but vocal coalition of groups as diverse as Equality Now and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission are leading the fight against Brownback and Biden’s bill. This coalition decries the fact that, under the bill, it would remain necessary for federal prosecutors to prove that pimps use ”force, fraud or coercion” in order to establish that adult prostitution is trafficking. Such a standard is prohibitively high, the coalition holds.
Thus far, Biden and Brownback have stood their ground in defense of an accurate definition of slave trafficking that necessarily involves compulsion or fraud. Such a definition focuses federal resources on freeing and protecting genuine slaves, and keeps the fight against consensual adult prostitution in the domain of the states.
Read his whole commentary at the Miami Herald.com.