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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Alexander Acosta
Assistant Attorney General

July 16, 2004

Alexander Acosta

Hello this is alex Acosta I'm the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. It is my pleasure to be online with you today. We are talking about human trafficking today. In looking at the many questions which we've received so far, many of you are asking how big of a problem human trafficking is. The numbers are staggering. Here in the United States, according to recent estimates, between 14,500 and 17,500 individuals are trafficked in our nation. Globally between 600,000 and 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked against their will across international borders. The problem is substantial. The United Nations has estimated that after drugs and arms sales, human trafficking is the largest source of revenue for organized crime.

But I think we should understand that numbers alone don't capture the depth of seriousness and depth of evil that is human trafficking. Real life examples strike so much closer to the heart.

When I talk about human trafficking, I often use a photograph to make clear how evil human trafficking is. It is a photograph from one of our cases.; I have the photograph in my office. The photograph shows a small room. Pretty much the size of a twin bed. It is separated from the rest of the house by a ragged blanket hung as a curtain. The victim in this case is a young girl of no more than 14 years of age. The girl was smuggled into this country by men who no doubt had promised her a better life. But instead these criminals stripped her of her freedom, of her dignity and her innocence.

They held her captive in this room and forced her to have sex with up to 30 men per day. And afterward, she was made to sleep in the very same bed. And that happened every night. 30 rapes per day, day after day after day.

Now this is a powerful image, but there's more. By the bed is a small night stand. One is a teddy bear. This was the girl's only possession. She told us later that she kept this teddy bear because it reminded her of her childhood. She was barely 14 years old but she recognized that her childhood had been lost already. The other item on that nightstand was a roll of paper towel.

But that is human trafficking. It is evil; it is hideous. As the President said before the United Nations there is a special evil in the abuse and exploitation of the most innocent and the most vulnerable. President Bush has reminded us that the victims of the sex trade see so little of life before they see the very worst of life. Even if they were just a handful of cases, it would be a serious problem. But when you think that there could be thousands of these cases taking place in America, you start to really understand the depth of this issue.

eli, from fort worth writes:
Hello It is sad to me that this is an issue. What do you find in traffickers? are they just pathetic, soul-less monsters?

Alexander Acosta
In a word, yes. These are individuals who engage in modern day slavery. They prey on young, innocent, poor and the most vulnerable. They beat them, they rape them, they abuse them, sometimes they kill them and they do this for profit.

karen, from Denver Colorado writes:
How do you measure success?

Alexander Acosta
Initially Karen, success means rescuing victims. Our goal is to rescue victims and to help them restore their lives. And we have made the focus on victims a high priority. In fact, we use a victim-centered approach which puts the needs of the victim right up front.

When you find a victim, you make sure that our victim witness coordinator is with the victim to make sure they get a medical screening, medical and dental services, they get emergency food and shelter. WE work with them to provide them with their entitled continued presence and a law enforcement certification so they can apply for a t-visa so they can stay in the US.

We have helped hundreds of victims obtain that t-visa. And we have helped nearly 500 victims obtain continued presence. So as a result of our efforts, there are hundreds of women, girls and men who are here in the US safe and secure.

Trafficking victims from more than 34 countries.

But prosecutions are also important because we need to take these traffickers off the street and into jail. And over the last 3 1/2 years, DOJ has charged 150 individuals with trafficking. That is over triple the rate of charges over the prior 3 1/2 year period.

DOJ has thus far, convicted 107 individuals which as the Attorney General said earlier today is a 100 percent success rate. But I think we all recognize all this work in the field under the leadership of President Bush, we are asked to do much more.

150 charges is a good beginning. We know and as President Bush has said, there are more traffickers out there and there is a special evil in the abuse and exploitation of the most innocent.

We in the DOJ have to work with the local police to prosecute more cases and to rescue many, many more victims.

Vicente, from Coral Gables writes:
I read an article about you in the Miami Herald where you stated you know the power of fear. Do you find that people who are abducted are so afraid that most do not attempt to escape?

Alexander Acosta
The answer to your question, Vicente is absolutely. Many victims of trafficking are held not through physical force but through fear and coercion. And a critical component of federal law, the trafficking victims protection act, is that it is illegal to coerce an individual.

So we do not need to show actual force, we need to show coercion.

Earlier today, we heard the President talk about the different cases. In one case, a young girl was told if she ran away her family would be harmed. And so she was fearful. And that is why victims services is so important. That is why the t-visa is so important.

As we heard here at the conference earlier today, the Attorney General in March of 2001, put into effect regulations that allowed victims to apply for a t-visa which allows them to stay for three years and thereafter seek regular status.

As President Bush has emphasized again and again, it is so important to make victims feel secure. We should recognize that victims of human trafficking often don't speak the language. They are far from their country. Victims are far from their family. They have no local contacts or friends. They are here without documentation. Victims are not going to call us because they are fearful.

That is why President Bush has made clear that we must be pro-active in seeking out the victims ourselves as well as the criminal enterprises that victimized them.

James, from Richmond writes:
How do you get grass-roots support? How can you get ordinary people to help in this effort? We have support groups for everything else. But it doesn't seem like there is a unified, volunteer effort which could help you.

Alexander Acosta

This is exactly why we are here. Because we do have grass roots support. We do have a network of service providers, community-based service providers and faith-based service providers that help victims and receive money from the federal government to engage in this type of work.

President Bush wants to make clear this administration's commitment to supporting these groups but in unifying these groups with local law enforcement and combined task forces which move these prosecutions and prevention and protection efforts to the next level.

We need to make the public aware of the need to find these cases and to make community and faith based providers aware of this issue so that we do have grass roots recognition of the problem.

In the past, we established task forces in Tampa, Phoenix, Philadelphia and Atlanta and most recently in Northern Virginia along with the Department of Health and Human Services. These task forces are important because they work at the grass roots level to bring local law enforcement, service providers, DOJ and HHS together to create local network to focus on this issue.

Today we announced that we want to form at least a dozen additional task forces in the next several weeks around the nation to further unify grass roots support.

Ed, from San Antonio writes:
What happens to the victims of human trafficking if they are rescued? Are they deported?

Alexander Acosta
The answer is no, no, no and no. Victims are not deported, we need to make that clear.

An earlier question asked "are victims fearful"? One of the reasons they are fearful is that they fear deportation.

I want to be absolutely clear, victims are not departed. In fact, under the law victims have the right to stay in the US. And there are two ways they can do this.

First they can receive continued presence. It is a term we use that allows victims to stay in the US pending an outcome of a trial.

The second method is called a t-visa, which allows them to stay in our country for up to three years and to thereafter apply for legal permanent status.

We have given t-visas and continued presence to I believe 584 victims. It is our policy that each and every individual who is a victim is entitled to continued presence or a t-visa receives our support in their application.

And in fact, if ever there is a decision that a victim should not receive continued presence or a t-visa, they do not have that authority to make that decision on their own. They need to ask permission from myself or my deputy before they can make a decision not to grant continued presence or a t-visa.

So I want to be clear again that victims are not deported. They are rescued and they stay in the US. And once here they have the right to be treated as if they were a refugee. They have a right to medical services, dental services and emergency food and shelter. And then they are put in touch with a service provider, ngos, which are organizations which are funded by DOJ and HHS and then begin restoring the individual's life.

Ann, from Aurora writes:
Mr. Acosta, So what is new about today? Why the focus on this issue now?

Alexander Acosta

The focus on the issue is not just this week. Under the leaderhship of President Bush, we have been working on this issue since the very beginning of 2001.

Attorney General on March 27, 2001 announced increased resources to combat human trafficking. He announced a hotline to address issues regarding human trafficking.

Let me add that we now have a national hotline in place for individuals to call if they believe that human trafficking is happening in their neighborhoods.

That number is: 1-888-428-7581

We have had a hotline in place since 2001 and we have been focusing resources on this issue.

In fact, for the past 3 1/2 years we have tripled the number of prosecutions to 150. And we have drastically increased the number of victims rescues. I believe it is 584 victims rescued.

It is something we have been working on a long time. It is a high priority.

I will state this however. We have learned that it is important to periodically focus substantial attention on this issue in order to make sure that Americans and community groups know and understand that this takes place in their neighborhood.

By President Bush coming here today, he has reminded Americans the importance of looking beneath the surface, to realize what they see in like in instances of domestic abuse might be in fact be human trafficking.

So we are very grateful for the leadership he has shown on this issue.

Jennifer, from Westport writes:
There was a big article in the New York Times about a month or so ago about human traffickers. How do you take the profit out of it?

Alexander Acosta
The answer to your question Jennifer is through prosecutions.

You take the profit out of trafficking the same way you take the profit out of any other crime -- by shutting down the criminal enterprise that victimizes these women, these girls, these individuals.

You take the profit out of it by making clear to traffickers that if they indulge in these criminal acts that they will pay for it.

You take the profit out of it by making clear that we will use every legal means necessary to interdict, investigate, prosecute and punish these individuals.

The more we prosecute, the harder it is for them to engage in these criminal enterprises and less profitable it will be.

The NY Times article also brought out an important point, it pointed out that trafficking was happening in people's backyards like Plainfield, New Jersey where folks might not have suspected that in an average looking house on a small street, trafficking was taking place.

And a critical way to taking profit out of trafficking is public awareness. By having folks understand that this is taking place in their neighborhoods and when something that may be trafficking, calling our hotline and reporting it.

But the best way to remove the profit out of it is by reducing the demand. Of course, profit is a function of supply and demand and we need to work, and this is a point that President Bush made very, very clear today, we need to reduce the demand -- we need to in fact eliminate that demand.

Alexander Acosta
I thank everyone for the questions. I am pleased that folks are showing interest in the issue. AS I mentioned going forward, the administration intends to roll out task forces in several cities to build on the energy developed in this conference. To build on the energy and the inspiration that the participants here drew from the President's remarks. In the next few weeks, you'll be seeing in your communities US Attorneys, federal law enforcement focusing on this issue along with local police and local community groups.

I hope that everyone online maintains their interest in this issue and helps to increase public awareness. I was pleased at all the questions that were sent and I really look forward to participating in "Ask the White House" again sometime soon.

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