WASHINGTON -- The House, responding to a dramatic increase in sex trafficking in the past decade, on Friday passed a measure designed to protect women and children smuggled into the United States and forced into prostitution and other forms of slave labor.
The measure, approved 371 to 1, also is intended to crack down on people who illegally bring foreign "workers" into the country against their will and force them into indentured servitude. The practice has been especially prevalent in Southern California, where authorities believe tens of thousands of men and women are being forced to work in sweatshops, restaurants, mom-and-pop stores and even underground brothels.
A Senate version of the bill is likely to pass Tuesday, and President Clinton is expected to sign the measure into law.
"This is the most significant human rights legislation (of) this Congress," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. The conservative senator co-authored the bill along with his ideological opposite, Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota -- a demonstration of the wide, bipartisan support the measure has received. "Trafficking is the new slavery of the world," Brownback said. "Worldwide, trafficking nets at least $7 billion a year -- exceeded only by the international drug and arms trades."
The exact number of victims is difficult to determine, experts and advocates say. But a CIA report found that about 50,000 people -- many of them women and children -- are brought to the United States under false pretenses each year.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act doubles to 20 years the prison term for people found guilty of trafficking in humans. A conviction could bring a sentence of life in prison in cases involving kidnapping or aggravated sexual abuse.
Women found trapped in sex trafficking will have the right to sue their captors and become eligible for crime victims' benefits.
The bill -- at a cost of $95 million over two years -- also makes victims eligible for a new, nonimmigrant visa that will enable them to work legally in the United States while authorities pursue criminal cases or while they themselves follow through on civil suits or seek asylum.
In one notorious Los Angeles-based case, 80 Thai workers -- mostly women -- were forced to labor for years under slave conditions. That case made national headlines, but authorities said Friday it was just one of many that underscore the extent of the problem.
In recent years, hundreds of Chinese have been found in dozens of container ships in Southern California ports. Some "workers" are smuggled in with the hopes of getting a paying job. Instead, they are held against their will, and even kept in bondage or high-security facilities.
Besides Southern California, other hot spots for trafficking in slave labor include New York, San Francisco and Miami.
But Los Angeles is perhaps the nation's hotbed for several reasons, said U.S. Attorney Michael Gennaco, who is part of a nationwide worker-exploitation task force mandated by Attorney General Janet Reno a year ago.
Thousands of foreigners, mostly Mexicans and other Latinos, are smuggled in through California's porous southern border, Gennaco and INS agent Jim Hayes said. Others, mostly Chinese, come by container ships that take advantage of the mammoth ports in Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Pedro. Still others, officials said, come by airplane or through Seattle and Vancouver, Wash.
And despite its support for the measure, the Clinton administration -- along with the State Department -- expressed concern over the sanctions the bill contains against countries that fail to take action against sex trafficking, supporters of the bill said.
There are no trade sanctions, but the measure does allow the administration to withhold nonhumanitarian aid from countries that fail to take action against trafficking.
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