Fighting our modern-day slavery

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At a time when America faces serious challenges, it is imperative that Washington put aside partisan hostility in favor of common-sense solutions that move our state and nation forward.

Some people argue that it’s not possible to reshape the dialogue to a more public-spirited approach, but I believe that Florida can lead by example – working together to do what is right. That’s my goal as chairman of a diverse, 29-member Florida congressional delegation that includes Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, 16 Republican House members and 11 Democrats.

A prime example of our bipartisan resolve occurred last week when the Florida delegation held an official hearing to tackle the growing problem of human trafficking – a form of modern-day slavery.

Florida ranks third in the nation, behind California and Texas, in the number of reported trafficking cases and it experienced an alarming 54 percent increase last year. Children account for more than half the cases of human trafficking, a crime in which the victim is abducted or recruited for sexual exploitation. It can also involve illegal organ harvesting and forced labor.

At the hearing I co-chaired with Democrat Alcee Hastings of Fort Lauderdale, we spoke with several Florida experts on ways to combat this vile and monstrous crime.

One of the witnesses was Elizabeth Fisher, founder and head of Selah Freedom, a national anti-sex-trafficking nonprofit based in Sarasota. Ms. Fisher briefed the members on her group’s efforts to help more than 2,000 young women in the Suncoast region. She also shared the harrowing story of a Bradenton girl who was trafficked from 11 years old up until she was 26.

The scope of the global problem is staggering: 27 million people are caught in the modern slave industry, which turns billions of dollars in profits for the heinous individuals behind these crimes.

This is an issue that demands immediate action. Several of the witnesses offered constructive suggestions to confront the problem. Ms. Fisher told us that Congress should focus on helping victims reclaim their lives, given that demand for services is tripling annually.

Another witness at the hearing, Dr. Suzanne Harrison with the Florida State University College of Medicine, noted that training in the medical community is essential to treat the girls and young women who “go unrecognized in clinics and emergency rooms.

Congress should take these suggestions to heart as it moves to address human trafficking.

I have co-sponsored bipartisan legislation, the Abolish Human Trafficking Act, to increase penalties for perpetrators and give law enforcement more tools to treat human trafficking like organized crime.

I also voted for the Put Trafficking Victims First Act, a bill that provides federal grants to train prosecutors on how to best protect victims and investigate human trafficking. It also provides assistance for trauma care and mental health services to victims. The proposal is currently awaiting action in the Senate.

Too often, the subject of human trafficking flies under the radar and only receives mainstream attention when it appears on the movie screen. We must continue the fight, not as Republicans or Democrats but as Americans, to raise awareness and combat this abhorrent crime against women and children in our communities. The time to act is right now.

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U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, serving his sixth term, represents Manatee County and parts of Sarasota and Hillsborough counties. He is also a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee. His column appears courtesy of FloridaPolitics.com.

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