By CHRISTINE HOMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING – Human trafficking is an internationally recognized problem, and legislators are seeking new weapons to fight it in Michigan.
The House has passed a package of bills proposed by Rep. Dudley Spade, D-Tipton, and four others that would expand the penalties for human trafficking.
The proposals are awaiting action in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Jane White, director of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force, a group which encourages collaboration between law enforcement and victims service providers, said that her organization is pleased that the Legislature wants to strengthen existing laws.
The legislation would allow prosecutors to charge human trafficking under racketeering laws in addition to current laws and would let authorities seize money and property associated with the crime.
Other sponsors include Reps. Shanelle Jackson, D-Detroit, and Vicki Barnett, D-Farmington Hills.
The package passed the House with only vote against it.
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade, the sole opponent, said, “Instead of improving upon existing legislation prohibiting human trafficking, these bills create potential new problems.”
Amash said he had concerns about the wording of the legislation and worried the proposed law could be misused.
According to Susan Stutzky, a House legislative analyst, the bills were introduced because prosecutors felt current laws don’t give them enough tools to fight the problem.
The proposal would allow prosecutors and law enforcement officials to go after groups of people involved in human trafficking more easily. Current laws are geared towards individuals rather than groups, said Stutzky.
White said, “It’s an important step for Michigan because it says that Michigan is very serious about the issues of trafficking.”
According to White, Michigan is a target for human traffickers because of its proximity to the Canadian border and because its large agricultural sector attracts workers from all over.
White said that its proximity to Toledo, Ohio, also adds to its vulnerability.
Toledo is a hub for human trafficking because of its location and its connection to major highways, she said.
Victims of human trafficking are lured from all over the world under false pretenses, often being promised a legal job.. However, when they arrive, they become what many refer to as modern-day slaves through force, fraud or coercion.
Victims are kept in fear and intimidation, according to White. She said victims are often scared of authorities and told they will be deported or that their families will be ashamed of what they are doing.
The first conviction for human trafficking in Michigan was handed down in 2002 in an Upper Peninsula case.
In 2006, a couple in Canton was convicted of enslaving a young girl from Cameroon who was brought to the U.S. illegally.
In 2007, several men were sentenced as part of conspiracy to lure Eastern European women to the U.S. and force them to work as exotic dancers in Detroit-area strip clubs.
White said there have been many cases of trafficking involving victims from China, Mexico and North Korea as well.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that there are 600,000 to 800,000 victims of human trafficking annually and that 14,500 to 17,500 are trafficked into the country each year. Most are women and children.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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By CHRISTINE HOMAN