The TVPRA: Standing at the Watchtower of Human Freedom

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[Welcome to The Weekly Bipartisan, where we share instances of meaningful bipartisanship, on the Hill and elsewhere. This project seeks to shine a light on efforts to come together to find common ground and advance shared values in a political climate defined by polarization, an increasingly jaded citizenry, and vilification instead of constructive dialogue and debate.  –LDB Editors]

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Frederick Douglass once wrote,

Standing as we do upon the watch-tower of human freedom, we cannot be deterred from an expression of our approbation of any movement, however humble, to improve and elevate the character of any members of the human family.

These words appeared in a July 1848 editorial in The North Star, as Douglass joined more than 300 men and women in New York for the first-ever women’s rights convention in the United States. Among the most celebrated abolitionists and orators of his time, Douglass had a deep understanding of the nature of human freedom and dignity. He not only carried, but in may ways was himself, the torch of the intellectual antislavery and equality movements of the nineteenth century.

He was also a true statesmen, who pursued truth and justice above tribalism, famously stating, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”

It is fitting, then, to see bipartisan support for the fight against human trafficking manifest itself in legislation bearing Frederick Douglass’s name. The Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act of 2017 (the “TVPRA”), passed in the House by voice vote just yesterday—169 years after Douglass’s North Star editorial.

The TVPRA was authored by New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, with California Democrat Karen Bass joining as the lead co-sponsor. Also sponsoring the bill were Ed Royce (R-CA), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Susan Brooks (R-IN), Lois Frankel (D-FL), Ann Wagner (R-MO), and Tony Cárdenas (D-CA). The bill reauthorizes the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000—also authored by Rep. Smith—which some have written “established the US as a world leader in the fight against human trafficking, using a comprehensive approach that includes prosecution, protection, and prevention.”

While one would be hard-pressed to find anyone opposed to the growing bipartisan commitment to eradicating this modern day form of slavery, some have taken issue with the focus and approach of an increasingly voluminous network of federal anti-trafficking legislation. Elizabeth Nolan Brown, for example, recently raised the following in her piece at Reason.com:

So far this year, federal lawmakers have introduced more than 30 bills related to ‘sex trafficking,’ which many in government now define to mean all prostitution. This week alone brought three new efforts. And following the familiar pattern of the drug war, these measures mostly focus on giving federal law enforcement more ‘tools’ to find, prosecute, and punish people for actions only tangentially, if at all, connected to causing harm.

From the standpoint of a civil libertarian, Brown’s point is well-taken. All too often, the government leverages citizens’ justified fears of a real problem to allot itself more expansive and intrusive powers. One particularly poignant example of such opportunistic overreach is the system of dragnet surveillance programs authorized under Section 702 of the FISA Amendment Act.

While it is vitally important citizens like Brown continue to hold the government’s feet to the fire on issues of civil liberty, it is also vitally important the government continue to try to get it right when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable among us. Rand Paul, for instance, is largely viewed as one of the more libertarian members of the U.S. Senate—and one who has coincidentally been critical of programs like Section 702 that he believes violate civil liberties—yet he has made clear his belief that the government can and should be doing more to end human trafficking. In 2015, he wrote the following in a moving Huffington Post op-ed:

Trafficking is a serious issue, and it is not limited to Third World countries. It is right here in our homeland. . .

There is a government role in combating sex trafficking and the abusers — but what about the victims? These women are broken physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Senator Paul raises an important question—one Brown alludes to in her Reason post—reminding us, likely as Frederick Douglass would have, that the true problem of sexual exploitation and human trafficking is one of human suffering and subjugation. That is, the victims, not just the crime, must be a priority.

That is something the bipartisan TVPRA takes to heart. The version of the bill approved by the House is reported to allocate “$520 million over four years toward programs that aim to identify and aid victims of trafficking and prevent it from occurring.” While much of this budget is allocated to existing programs created under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 and its subsequent re-authorizations, the text of the TVPRA does include provisions creating new initiatives—many of them victim-centric.

Subtitle A of the bill, for example, is dedicated entirely to “Programs to Support Victims and Persons Vulnerable to Human Trafficking.” Section 113 of Subtitle A establishes a Human Trafficking Victims Re-integration Through Employment Program, whereby the Department of Health and Human Services may assist victims with, among other things, enrollment and participation in basic education and literacy programs, job-specific training and vocational certifications, assistance with attaining a high school diploma or its equivalent, assistance with the expungement of non-violent criminal records, and general job search and interview preparation and counseling.

Also under Subtitle A, Section 111 bolsters efforts to educate “children on the signs and dangers of severe forms of trafficking in persons,” and Section 112 provides for improved mechanisms within the Department of State to receive and process information and assistance from foreign governments.

Subtitle B of the bill includes provisions addressing the more general “Government Efforts to Prevent Human Trafficking.” One interesting change in the TVPRA here is Section 121, “Required Training to Prevent Human Trafficking for Certain Contracting Air Carriers.” This provision requires any air carriers contracting with the government to provide an annual report documenting “the number of personnel trained in the detection and reporting of potential human trafficking.” This reporting requirement reinforces an already existing effort by airlines to ensure their staff are cognizant of the reality that some passengers may indeed be a victim in-transit and how to recognize such a situation—an effort that is already bearing fruit.

The bill, among other functions, also creates and refines a number of reporting procedures to ensure American tax dollars are not channeled to entities or agencies, domestic or abroad, that engage in or otherwise tolerate human trafficking. Ultimately, however, the bill’s greatest quality is simply its dedication to not just fighting against crime, but to fighting for victims. As Bishop Joe Vazquez in Austin, Texas wrote recently at Justice for Immigrants, on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,

H.R. 2200 is an important step Congress can take to help prevent human trafficking and protect victims as it provides important service provisions that will aid victims. Programs and services such as those contained in H.R. 2200 recognize the importance of dignified care for and reintegration of human trafficking victims. As Pope Francis has stated: ‘[Trafficking] victims are from all walks of life, but are most frequently among the poorest and most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters.’

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Having cleared the House on a bipartisan voice vote—TownHall.com reports it as having been unanimous—the TVPRA will now move to the Senate, where it should continue to receive broad support. Should the bill be approved by the Senate, President Trump, who has vowed his administration’s commitment to the fight against human trafficking, has already voiced his support for the TVPRA specifically.

If the TVPRA can bring together Democrats, Republicans, Catholic Bishops, immigrant support groups, and President Donald Trump, that is truly something worth celebrating. And for a bill to create such desperately needed unification over so fundamental a cause, how fitting it should bear the name of a man who dedicated his life to agitating the American conscience: Frederick Douglass.

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