Author:Williams, Beth A.

I'd like to thank the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy for hosting this conversation about human trafficking. I would like to address the issue on behalf of the Department of Justice, where I serve as the Assistant Attorney General leading the Office of Legal Policy (OLP). OLP is sometimes described as the think tank for the Department of Justice. Unlike almost all of the other attorneys across the Department, we do not handle cases or even directly oversee them. Instead, we are able to take a high-level view of what is happening across the Department and to synthesize those cases and initiatives and other activities into a coherent package for Department leadership on issues that are top priorities for them. That high-level view also gives us the perspective to develop new approaches--to identify new partnerships, both inside and outside of the government, that would be useful--and to propose new policy ideas that move the ball on Departmental priorities. Another part of my role is to help get the word out about what the Department is doing. And I have found that after speaking to stakeholders outside of the DOJ, and to the public, I often go back to my office with fresh perspectives and new ideas. That is why I am grateful to be a part of this conversation and to be invited to address this important matter.

Let me start by telling you a little bit about what human trafficking is and how it is criminalized under U.S. law. Under federal law, it is a crime to compel another person to provide labor, services, or commercial sex through prohibited means of coercion, and to exploit a minor for commercial sex. (1) This prohibited coercion can take a number of forms--not just physical force. It includes force or threats of force, but also threats of "serious harm," defined to include "any harm, whether physical or non-physical, including psychological, financial, or reputational harm," as long as it is sufficiently serious to compel a reasonable person in the victim's situation. (2) It also includes "abuse or threatened abuse of law or legal process," (3) such as threats to have the victim arrested or deported. In other words, not every trafficking victim is forced to perform labor or engage in commercial sex at gunpoint. Many are subject to other, more subtle, but also coercive--and ultimately just as traumatizing--forms of compulsion. When a victim exploited for commercial sex is a minor, the coercion element drops out. Exploitation of a minor for commercial sex is human trafficking under U.S. law, regardless of whether any form of force, fraud, or coercion was used. (4)

Victims of human trafficking come from all backgrounds and walks of life. But traffickers most often prey on individuals who are poor, vulnerable, in an unsafe or unstable living situation, or are in search of a better or different life. Trafficking victims are often deceived by false promises of love, a good job, or a stable life and are lured or forced into situations where they are made to work under deplorable conditions with little or no pay--and with the threat of abuse constantly hanging over their heads. Victims of labor trafficking can be found in legal and illegal labor industries, including massage parlors, nail and hair salons, restaurants, hotels, factories, and farms. Some victims are hidden behind closed doors as they toil in domestic servitude in a home. Others are in plain view, and interact with people on a daily basis. Victims of...

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