Combating Human Trafficking in Our Communities: State Senator Cesar J. Blanco

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Did you know that human trafficking is one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises in the world and that Texas is home to some of the highest numbers of human trafficking cases in the country? Researchers at the University of Texas School of Social Work estimate that, at any given time, 313,000 people are trafficked in Texas. This includes 79,000 child victims of sex trafficking and 234,000 adult victims of labor trafficking.

But these are not just numbers; They are the faces of daughters, sons, sisters and brothers whose freedom and dignity were robbed. Each statistic represents a life derailed, dreams shattered, and innocence stolen.

Since January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month, there is no better time to share what we worked on this past session to prevent human trafficking in our communities.

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The pivotal accomplishment was Senate Bill 1527, the comprehensive human trafficking prevention bill that I proudly co-authored and helped pass. This comprehensive legislation expands protections for victims with disabilities, facilitates the inclusion of protest testimony in trafficking trials, increases penalties for child pornography charges, and adds safeguards for victims of trafficking.

An important provision of SB 1527 brings the crime of anti-grooming into state law, making it a third-degree felony. Grooming, meaning intentionally establishing a relationship with a child to subject him to sexual abuse or human trafficking, is already a federal crime. A state crime allows state and local law enforcement to arrest traffickers for grooming activities before trafficking occurs. Finally, another protection built into the bill is to place a mark on the driver’s license of anyone convicted of trafficking, which could help identify repeat offenders.

Across the United States, there are approximately 9,000 illicit massage businesses that are fronts for prostitution and human trafficking. To address this issue, this session helped pass House Bill 3579 which allows the Texas Department of Licensing Regulation (TDLR) to close massage establishments where human trafficking is suspected.

As ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft serve as major modes of transportation in our communities, they often serve as the eyes and ears of our communities, interacting with many riders and oftentimes unwittingly encountering human trafficking victims. To assist in identification efforts, we passed House Bill 2313, which requires rideshare companies to train their drivers on ways to identify human trafficking. By providing drivers with the knowledge and tools they need, we can take important steps in preventing human trafficking.

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As with taxi drivers, health care providers are on the front lines of defense when it comes to identifying potential victims of human trafficking. According to a Loyola University Chicago survey of nearly 100 sex trafficking survivors, 88% reported having some type of contact with a health care provider while they were trafficked. Reports also showed that trafficked persons rarely declare or even identify themselves as victims.

She worked with victims and stakeholders to author House Bill 2059 to provide more than 68,000 frontline health care workers in schools, hospitals, clinics and storefronts across the state with training to help detect potential victims and provide them with adequate care. The training will not require licensees to intervene in situations that may involve trafficking – only to monitor and report. This is part of a growing awareness trend in our state, as police target human traffickers, hotels train employees to report suspicions, and restaurants offer human trafficking hotlines. For healthcare workers, knowing when and why to report something to law enforcement can save someone’s life.

At the border community level, we need to address cartel smuggling. In 2023 alone, Border Patrol agents in El Paso discovered more than 281 homes containing more than 3,600 smuggled migrants. Cartel smugglers exploit people who want to leave their home countries to escape poverty and crises, or simply want to find a better life. Unfortunately, many smuggled migrants become victims of human trafficking and are subjected to sexual or labor exploitation, forced criminality, organ removal, and more. This session, the Legislature aimed to crack down on cartels by imposing tougher penalties on smugglers to better protect our local communities and immigrants exposed to cartels.

In the fight against human trafficking, it requires all of us to be vigilant for signs of human trafficking. Look for individuals who show physical abuse or fear. Be alert for those who lack control over personal identification or travel documents, and individuals who appear to be overly monitored or accompanied. Use caution when meeting people with limited communication or an inability to talk about themselves. Recognize signs of coercion or force. Notice indicators such as poor nutrition, untreated medical conditions, or rehearsed responses. Remember: watch something. say something.

For assistance, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888 or text 233733. You can also chat with the National Human Trafficking Hotline via humantraffickinghotline.org/chat.

State Sen. Cesar G. Blanco, a Democrat from El Paso, represents the 29th District.

This article originally appeared in the El Paso Times: We should all look for signs of human trafficking: State Sen. Cesar J. Blanco

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