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Texas lawmakers take closer aim at human trafficking

Human trafficking now exceeds all illegal enterprises except for illicit drug and weapon smuggling in terms of profits derived, which can be as high as $32 billion annually. And Texas has the dubious distinction of sharing a large slice of that pie.

The state is home to one of the busiest routes for trafficking humans: the stretch of Interstate Highway 10 that runs from El Paso to Houston. The most recent data from 2007 indicates 30 percent of calls made to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline to report cases of alleged human trafficking were made from Texas, according to the Polaris Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that operates the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline and lobbies for stronger state and federal anti-trafficking legislation.

Legislators and law enforcement officials aren’t sitting idly by, however. Texas has a reputation as one of the country’s leaders in attacking the problem: The Polaris Project considers the state one of the most proactive in curbing the practice, as it meets a majority of the 10 criteria the group has set forth as a barometer to measure success. Penalties for trafficking children here are also among the most severe in the nation. A person found guilty of pimping a child, which is what happens to the majority of children trafficked, faces a second-degree felony charge, punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Pimping an adult, by comparison, is a Class A misdemeanor.

(Polaris is careful to distinguish between human trafficking and human smuggling. The latter is when payment is made willingly for assistance in illegally entering the U.S., usually to guides called coyotes, who often report upstream to leaders of a smuggling team. The former is the transport and, later, forced servitude of an individual, usually into the sex trade. The majority of trafficking victims rescued are somehow tied to establishments that serve alcohol, according to the Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition.)

While immigrants compose a considerable amount of trafficking victims — some 18,000 a year — U.S. citizens, especially children, are the main source of capital for traffickers. An estimated 244,000 American minors are trafficked within the country’s borders, according to the Rescue and Restore Coalition. State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, says most are runaways swept into sex rings or other forced labor after being found by traffickers who profit from their victims’ eagerness to escape their past lives. Van de Putte and her Republican colleagues found common ground in 2009, when a Senate bill that would have increased training for police officers and formed a statewide human trafficking task force sailed through the upper chamber but was the unintended victim of voter ID stalling on the House floor. Ultimately, she was able to attach the legislation to an amendment to a House bill authored by state Rep. Randy Weber, R-Pearland, which became law.

This week Van de Putte pre-filed SB 98, a bill that would amend the Texas Criminal Code to require convicted traffickers to register as sex offenders and would grant further protections to child victims, including the option of videotaping a statement in court so as not to face the alleged trafficker. Servando Esparza, a Van de Putte legislative assistant, says the senator's office is once again working with Weber and also with state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, and members of Gov. Rick Perry’s office to draft the legislation.

"This bill is a shell bill. We are going to include all the parts that everyone agrees to,” Esparza says.

'Victims and not offenders'

Texas’ record of being tough on crime has often meant harsh penalties for child victims of human trafficking, as they have historically been charged with criminal acts of prostitution despite being forced to engage in sexual acts against their will. But lawmakers are encouraged by a Texas Supreme Court ruling in June that reversed a lower court's decision to charge a 13-year-old female with a misdemeanor crime of prostitution.

In a 6-to-3 decision, the court ruled in The Matter of B.W. that a minor child, known only in court documents by her initials, could not be charged with prostitution due to her age. The initial charge of prostitution was filed after the teen consented to sex with an undercover officer during a sting operation in Houston. She received 18 months of probation, a sentence that was upheld on appeal before being overturned by the high court.

“The Texas Supreme Court recognizes that Texas will treat these [children] as victims and not offenders,” says Houston attorney Ann Johnson, who was appointed to represent B.W. on appeal. “This is the first case like it in the nation, so Texas is leading the way and saying that we’re going to address this issue and we’re going to protect these children.”

Johnson says the charges were a result of Texas juvenile law, which she calls a “hybrid” of civil and criminal law. It stems from the 1973 decision by the Legislature to apply the state’s penal code to juveniles through the Texas Family Code.

“There is one provision that says if you submit an offense for which you can be permitted by confinement in jail in the penal code, then it applies to juveniles,” she says. “Our argument, and what the court agreed with, was that you can’t incorporate just the provision of prostitution without considering all of the other protective provisions for children in the penal code. Texas law has been clear that children cannot consent to sex with adults.”

It makes sense, says Van de Putte, to remember the why they chose to leave and consider what it takes to move their lives forward.

"The reason they ran away in the first place is because they didn’t have such a great home life," she says. "Jail is also an inappropriate place for them."

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graphic by Todd Wiseman/Texas Tribune