Remarks at the National Association of Attorneys General Conference

Susan Coppedge
Ambassador-at-Large, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
Washington, DC
February 24, 2016

Good morning. Thank you, Sam, for that kind introduction; I am honored to be here today. I am also grateful that you, as Attorneys General, with many issues to tackle, are taking the time to consider where we currently are and where we are headed in our efforts to combat human trafficking in this country.

As Ambassador of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, I lead the State Department’s efforts to combat all forms of human trafficking through public engagement, multilateral and bilateral diplomacy, and targeted foreign assistance.

It is exciting to be part of the solution. I spent 15 years as an AUSA before being confirmed in my new position last October. The combined power and influence of this audience can go a long way to eradicating human trafficking, which is nothing less than slavery in the 21st century. And look at this room. Full of public servants ­­­­­­­­– lawmakers and politicians from both sides of the aisle – all united in our efforts to combat human trafficking, which, just last month, Secretary Kerry called “an issue of extreme moral clarity.”

The good news is that we have already made significant strides in the 16 years since the Federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act was first enacted. Over the years, we have gained a better understanding of what this crime looks like and who both the victims and perpetrators are. And we have made great progress in implementing a victim-centered approach in our law enforcement efforts.

All 50 states now have laws criminalizing human trafficking, and many states have task forces dedicated to implementing effective policies and procedures to combat human trafficking through the collaboration of prosecutors, law enforcement, and service providers.

And, federally, we have taken another step forward. We are empowering survivors. At the end of 2015, the president appointed the first U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. This is nothing short of historic. The Council, comprised of 11 survivors of sex and labor trafficking, attended the most recent meeting of the cabinet-level President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. We eagerly await their input into and recommendations for U.S. government policies and programs to combat modern slavery.

Equally impressive are the people across the country who are working to be part of the solution. They understand that modern slavery affects their communities and threatens their children and neighbors, and individuals have risen to meet the challenge.

In the last year, we saw an increase in the number of investigations, of victims identified, of services provided, and of prosecutions. Yesterday you heard Attorney General Lynch highlight the Federal Anti-Trafficking Coordination Team Initiative (or ACTeam initiative); a program that involved multi-agency collaboration on trafficking investigations and prosecutions and also helped to target major cases involving both sex and labor trafficking.

I served on Atlanta’s ACTeam and know firsthand the importance of collaboration on these cases. I encourage State agencies to work across disciplines and look for ways to enhance your coordination to better identify crimes and provide services to victims.

As an example of successfully identifying labor trafficking victims, please let me highlight last year’s prosecution involving an egg farm near Cleveland. Five individuals were charged for their role in an operation involving eight minors, some as young as 14 and 15, and also adults. Theirs were tough jobs: cleaning chicken coops, loading and unloading crates of chickens, de-beaking chickens. These were kids living in unsanitary conditions and working 12 hours or more a day. The traffickers withheld the money they had earned and threatened the victims and their families. Four of the defendants have pled guilty, with the leader facing up to 20 years in prison.

Progress is being made in prosecuting sex trafficking cases as well. In one sex trafficking case from last year, Hortencia Medeles-Arguello was convicted and just last month sentenced to life in prison for her role in a sex trafficking ring that preyed on women and children from Mexico. She ran a brothel in a Houston cantina causing victims as young as 14 to engage in commercial sex acts from which she made more than $1.6 million in a 19-month period. Twelve victims came forward and bravely testified about their ordeal. Seven co-defendants pled guilty and properties and assets valued at approximately $2.5 million will be forfeited. As I’m sure y’all know, forfeiture is an important tool that hits the traffickers in the pocketbook.

On the civil side, we saw five Indian nationals awarded $14 million for the harm caused by their exploitation by Signal International in one of the largest civil labor trafficking cases in U.S. history. These men paid recruitment fees to get the jobs in the first place and then, when they arrived at Signal shipyards in Mississippi, Signal forced them each to pay $1,050 a month to live in isolated, guarded labor camps where as many as 24 men shared a space the size of a double-wide trailer. None of Signal’s non-Indian workers were required to live in the company housing. These workers also learned they would not receive the green cards or permanent residency as they had been promised.

And these are just a few examples of recent successes in combating human trafficking. I know that many AGs offices have dedicated staff to work on trafficking matters. Keep up the good work!

These cases matter and they prove how important it is that we have individuals both in high-level decision-making roles and on the ground – police officers, social workers, doctors and nurses, labor inspectors, caregivers, and lawyers – who dedicate themselves to keeping victims out of harm’s way, facilitating their recovery, and ensuring that traffickers and their accomplices serve meaningful sentences behind bars.

The work you do positively affects countless lives. I remember telling a colleague after a sentencing in which the victims bravely spoke to the court that we were working on the side of the angels. And you are! But the truth is that we still have a long way to go.

So today, I want to focus on a few key areas where I believe we can make a difference: (1) not criminalizing trafficking victims, (2) vacating the criminal records of victims, and (3) adopting comprehensive preventive measures including demand reduction.

As Ambassador of the TIP Office, one of my priorities is bringing attention to and helping address the wrongful prosecution of trafficking victims, both children and adults, for nonviolent crimes committed as a direct result of their victimization. This is a persistent and pressing issue, both here in the United States and around the world. I have already been fortunate enough to carry this message to Mexico, Cuba, Botswana and South Africa.

As an example, in one of my early cases we indicted Jimmy Jones for sex trafficking of adults; some of whom were young women in college. He promised these young women modeling jobs and appearances in music videos. Then, he blackmailed them with threats to expose them to their friends and families and ruin their credit, if they did not engage in commercial sex acts and give him the proceeds. If necessary, he beat the young women into complying. We indicted the case initially with a few victims, and then many more came forward. These young women had never gone to the police for fear of being arrested; for fear that the police would not believe them and instead charge them with crimes of prostitution. If more victims of human trafficking feel confident they will not be prosecuted, it is likely they will also be more willing to report their victimization.

Victims of trafficking should not be held liable for their involvement in unlawful activities that are a direct consequence of their victimization. Often, victims who are forced to commit a crime are mistaken for criminals and therefore treated as such by law enforcement and judicial officials. Many trafficking victims remain undetected among those who have committed crimes because of a lack of proper victim identification and screening measures. The ramifications are very real.

This can mean a child victim of sex trafficking who is arrested and detained, or an adult survivor of sex trafficking who cannot get a job because of prior arrests for prostitution. It might also take the form of a foreign domestic worker who has fled her abusive household and needs protection but instead is penalized for violating U.S. immigration laws. Another example might be the children and migrants forced by organized criminal groups to work in the production, transportation, and sale of drugs. For example, in 2009, three Vietnamese children were arrested for working on cannabis farms in the United Kingdom, convicted for drug offenses, and sentenced to imprisonment. An appellate court, however, overturned the convictions in 2013, holding that the children were victims of trafficking.

As a former Assistant U.S. Attorney, I fully appreciate how complex and difficult these cases can be and the amount of work and energy that goes into them. But it is essential that prosecutors do their utmost to ensure these individuals are treated as survivors of trafficking and afforded the dignity of being assisted, not harmed by systems meant to protect them. This is at the heart of the victim-centered approach to combating trafficking.

It is critical that officials – including police, prosecutors, judges, immigration officials, and social services staff – be trained to identify trafficking victims in order to prevent further victimization and start the process towards recovery as soon as possible. And this is hard – as often trafficking victims do not self-identify.

While federal, state, and local government institutions will never be able to fully reverse the trauma of human trafficking, we can review and improve our laws and policies to strengthen our identification efforts and aid an individual’s recovery by providing support to each victim on their journey toward becoming a survivor.

Rather than jails or youth detention centers, there need to be dedicated shelters specifically designed for trafficking victims: boys, girls, adults, and LGBT trafficking victims all have needs that are distinct.

We must also embrace the notion of vacating, or expunging, the criminal records of trafficking victims. Many states have enacted provisions that provide survivors the ability to seek a court order vacating or expunging criminal convictions entered against them that resulted from their trafficking situation.

In 2010, New York became the first state to pass a law allowing survivors of trafficking to vacate their convictions for prostitution offenses. In 2013, Florida’s law went even farther providing for the expungement of “any conviction for an offense committed while . . . a victim of human trafficking.”

I’ve heard from survivors of human trafficking that vacatur is a better option than expungement, as vacatur is a formal recognition of “factual innocence.” States should also ensure that these laws cover convictions that encompass the wide variety of nonviolent crimes that victims are forced to commit.

I ask each of you to consider what the status of this kind of law is in your state – and can you champion this next step in restoring rights to victims of trafficking crimes? These vacatur laws should apply to adults as well as to children for, just as a child cannot consent, neither should an adult who has been forced, tricked or coerced into criminal activity be held responsible for having consented to that activity.

These laws not only correct past injustices, but also help trafficking victims reclaim and rebuild their lives. Failing to have a vacatur law condemns a victim to a perpetual state of being viewed as a criminal and diminishes his or her options in life. Vacatur also increases a survivor’s ability to find work, reducing economic vulnerabilities and the risk of being re-trafficked.

For instance, in many cases, company policies prohibit hiring anyone with a criminal record and this has a real effect on victims of trafficking. At least one study found an estimated 80% or more of employers in the United States use criminal background checks during their employment process.

In addition to noncriminalization and vacatur, I’d also like to discuss prevention. Quite literally, preventing human trafficking from occurring in the first place. In short, we must both educate those vulnerable to becoming trafficking victims and attack demand. Tackling demand – for both sex trafficking and forced labor – takes many forms, from training educators and law enforcement to public awareness campaigns to greater involvement by state labor departments or state licensing boards. Law enforcement needs to look behind the surface crime to determine if the defendant is, in reality, a trafficking victim.

A holistic approach to combating human trafficking also includes public awareness campaigns within the community – events with medical professionals, educators, and victim-focused community organizations. This has a dual benefit: it increases the number of individuals who might report the crime to law enforcement and addresses demand. Awareness efforts can increase the number of individuals who refuse to, or challenge others to refuse to, purchase commercial sex. Informed consumers become more apt to ask companies where and how their goods are being made, and to insist that such companies effectively monitor and evaluate their global supply chains.

And having more “eyes and ears” in the community is a bonus ~ let’s think about educators as one example. Just as many of you spend more time with your work colleagues than your family, teachers spend a great deal of time with our children. Educators need to be aware of the warning signs of human trafficking in order to prevent victimization. The U.S. Department of Education has released a guide to help schools identify potential victims, protect students, and work with partners in their efforts to prosecute traffickers

The good news is that there is a wealth of resources to draw from or replicate. Don’t reinvent the wheel – but use what is out there. The Department of State distributes a “Know Your Rights” pamphlet to certain visa holders before they arrive in the United States to help them understand their rights, protections, and the resources available to them.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign contains multiple tools including pocket-sized cards for law enforcement with the indicators of trafficking and posters and PSAs for awareness-raising.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center has a toolkit for hotlines and a global directory of anti-trafficking organizations; while the American Bar Association has a downloadable toolkit for lawyers and bar associations.

If you will allow me the prerogative of touting my own home state and its Attorney General Sam Olens, Georgia has developed a creative anti-demand campaign titled: “Georgia’s Not Buying It.” The campaign focuses on aggressively prosecuting those who purchase sex illegally, promoting training for mandated reporters, and incentivizing businesses and civic organizations to get involved. Georgia has made creative use of local, notable sportscasters and sports heroes who warn against purchasing commercial sex and tear down the offenders’ tired excuses. Hence the play on words – Georgia’s Not Buying It. And under the leadership of Attorney General Olens, Georgia is now trying to get all 50 states involved in this initiative to end sex trafficking.

We can also learn promising practices from New York State, whose Labor Department is empowered to receive and investigate tips of possible human trafficking, provide certifications for U or T visas for eligible victims, deliver human trafficking workshops, and distribute materials with information on the red flags for human trafficking and the services available for victims.

And come July, California’s Foreign Labor Recruitment Law will go into effect making California the first state in the country to require labor recruiters to meet certain conditions and register with the state, thus enhancing protections for workers. The law even prohibits the charging of any recruitment fees to workers.

These are just a few examples, and I’m certain that other good ideas are still to come. And I can say this because I am new to town - Don’t wait for Washington – share your ideas, solutions, and successes with each other and with me, so I can share them internationally.

What additional channels or strategies might be used to prevent or identify human trafficking in state licensing or safety inspection regimes? This might take the form of tying a license approval or renewal to completion of specified human trafficking training course, or adding additional questions related to human trafficking to routine health, safety, and labor inspections, or requiring hotline information to be posted in public areas at worksites. I understand that the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission requires the national human trafficking hotline number to be posted at establishments, including convenience and grocery stores, as well as bars and restaurants. New York State has enhanced legislation and a specialized task force to protect workers against exploitation in businesses such as nail salons.

I wish I had more time to tout additional models from other states, but I know there will be many useful exchanges among the Attorneys General and their staff.

Collaboration is key because we know it will be challenging to stop all of the overwhelming forces that cause vulnerability to trafficking. We can work with critical stakeholders to better pinpoint places of vulnerability and to implement prevention efforts that effectively address them.

By way of another personal example, the last human trafficking case I tried involved a seventeen-year-old refugee from West Africa. She was here legally and facing many of the same problems lots of teenagers can face with their families. She had run away from home and was homeless. And it was her homelessness that made her vulnerable to a career criminal who had taken up sex trafficking as the easiest way he saw to make money.

So we need safe shelter options for all youth who feel they have no choice but to leave home; immigration policies that incentivize employers to demand safe and fair recruitment of their workers; outreach programs to those in isolated locations, such as domestic workers, fishermen off the coast of Hawaii, or sheep herders in Colorado; and increased scrutiny of our child protection systems.

It also means that we must identify populations within our borders whose circumstances make them vulnerable to being recruited by traffickers – migrants, the homeless, LGBT individuals, people with disablities, and indigenous communities, to name a few. And we must ensure there are resources and protections available to help reduce these risks to trafficking.

We must take these actions, because if we don’t identify when and where a person becomes vulnerable, the traffickers will. In fact, they already do – with alarming precision.

To fight back against the traffickers, leaders in government will need to develop close partnerships with NGOs, faith-based organizations, and businesses as well as share information among federal, state, and local agencies. Although my prior experience was in prosecution, I learned that when governments and civil society work together they can better prevent the crime of trafficking, stabilize and protect victims, and prosecute the traffickers and facilitators.

As my boss Secretary Kerry, also a former prosecutor has said: “…justice is not simply a matter of having the right laws on the books; we have to back those words with resources, strategies, and actions that produce the right results.”

We have a heavy task ahead of us, but it is not insurmountable. I am optimistic given the progress that has already been made and knowing the talent, determination, and influence in this room.

So, the responsibility lies with us – to reach those at risk before they fall through the cracks and into the hands of exploiters. We must not only identify and care for victims, but also prevent the exploitation from ever happening at all. And I call on those in this room – the Attorneys General of all 50 states – the law enforcement leaders of State government - to use their positions as I am now using mine, to amplify the voices of human trafficking victims and speak up for those who think that no one will speak up for them.

I stood next to a young survivor as she told a federal judge that while she was being trafficked she would cry every night. She told the Court that she thought only the walls would ever hear her cries. I have now carried that voice beyond a jury and judge in Atlanta; to the Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, and now to the Attorneys General of our 50 states. There are victims and survivors in each of your states that need your voice, the amplification of your offices, to pass and enforce laws that will protect them.

I want to thank y’all for doing your part. I am happy to spend the remaining time taking questions or sharing best practices and successes from your State’s efforts.