Issues that exist in dozens of countries and on nearly every continent become easy to pass off as an international problem rather than a local one, so it’s understandable that when most South Dakotans hear the words “human trafficking,” our focus goes across the border.  Maybe the movie Taken comes to mind and we think of the daughter of Liam Neeson’s character who is kidnapped while in Paris, drugged and put up for auction by human traffickers.

Sadly, the issue exists right in our backyard.  I-90 is known as the “Midwest Pipeline” and is used to transport victims of human trafficking across the country.  Traffickers use places like Sioux Falls as a base to gain access to demand from the Twin Cities, North Dakota’s Bakken Oil Field, the Sturgis motorcycle rally, and areas that draw in thousands of out-of-state hunters.

We also cannot ignore the crisis occurring on Indian Reservations across the country where Native American women and children are being targeted and exploited by sex traffickers.  During a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing last September, Lisa Brunner of the White Earth Ojibwe Nation in Minnesota called human trafficking involving Native women an “epidemic.”

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, a time to draw a renewed focus to eliminating this tragic industry.  Here in South Dakota, local law enforcement officials have worked hard to identify sex traffickers and bring them into custody.  Less than two months ago, officials arrested a Wisconsin man in Sioux Falls for luring in two girls, including a minor, and then forcibly selling them as escorts via the Internet.

We have seen a handful of arrests like this over the last few years, but more can and must be done with the support of the public and Congress. 

Today’s federal trafficking laws provide protections and resources for victims and equip prosecutors with the tools they need to go after traffickers.  The law, however, isn’t as clear when it comes to those who solicit the services of a trafficking victim. 

These buyers create demand and drive this criminal business.  As President George W. Bush stated, “We cannot put [human traffickers] out of business until and unless we deal with the problem of demand.”

To begin to better combat human trafficking, I’ve co-sponsored the End Sex Trafficking Act, which would strengthen prosecutors’ ability to go after those who solicit, patronize, or obtain these illegal services. 

While Congress works to strengthen and clarify our nation’s human trafficking laws, there are things you can do to help as well.  One of the most important things you can do is keep a look out for indicators of human trafficking.  Is someone you know not free to come and go as they wish from their home or workplace?  Do they owe a large debt that they’re unable to pay off?  Are they anxious, depressed, submissive, or tense?  These are all signs that should be taken seriously and can be reported through the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888.

As many as 300,000 children are at risk of becoming victims of sex trafficking every year in the United States – some of them are right here in South Dakota.  Join me today in finding better ways to combat this disgusting  trade.  Look for signs in our communities.  Talk to your friends and family to help build awareness.  Support the local organizations that help heal the victims of this appalling industry. 

Now is the time to dismantle human trafficking networks, help survivors rebuild their lives, and bring all those who exploit other human beings to justice.

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