Combating human trafficking in our communities

Did you know human trafficking is one of the fastest-growing criminal enterprises in the world, and Texas is home to some of the highest numbers of 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 being trafficked in Texas. That includes 79,000 children who are victims of sex trafficking and 234,00 adults who are victims of labor trafficking.  

But these are not just numbers; they are the faces of daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers who have been robbed of their freedom and dignity. Every statistic represents a life derailed, dreams shattered, and innocence stolen.  

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

A pivotal achievement was Senate Bill 1527, the human trafficking prevention omnibus bill that I proudly co-authored and helped pass. This comprehensive legislation expands protections for victims with disabilities, facilitates the inclusion of outcry testimonials in trafficking trials, strengthens penalties for child pornography charges, and adds safeguards for trafficking victims.  

An important provision of SB 1527 introduces an anti-grooming offense to state law, making it a third-degree felony. Grooming, the deliberate establishment of a connection with a child to subject them to sexual abuse or human trafficking, is already a federal crime. The state offense allows state and local law enforcement to arrest traffickers for grooming activities before trafficking occurs. Finally, another protection built into the bill is to flag the driver’s license of anyone convicted of trafficking, which could help identify repeat offenders.  

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

With rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft serving as major modes of transportation in our communities, they often serve as the eyes and ears of our communities, interacting with many passengers and oftentimes unknowingly coming across victims of trafficking. To help with 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 significant steps in preventing human trafficking.   

Similar to rideshare drivers, healthcare providers are on the frontlines of defense when it comes to identifying potential victims of human trafficking. According to a survey conducted by Loyola University Chicago of about 100 sex trafficking survivors, 88% reported having some type of contact with a healthcare provider while they were being trafficked. Reporting has also shown that trafficked people rarely announce or even identify themselves as victims. Recognizing healthcare workers’ unique position, I worked with victims and stakeholders to author House Bill 2059 to equip more than 68,000 front-line healthcare workers in schools, hospitals, clinics, and storefronts throughout the state with the training to help detect potential victims and provide them with adequate care. The training will not require licensees to intervene in situations that may include trafficking — only to observe and report. This is part of a growing awareness trend in our state, where police target traffickers, hotels train staff to report suspicions, and restaurants display trafficking hotlines. For healthcare workers, knowing when and why to report something to law enforcement could save a life.  

At the border-community level, we need to tackle cartel smuggling. In 2023 alone, Border Patrol agents in El Paso discovered more than 281 houses containing over 3,600 smuggled migrants. Cartel smugglers take advantage of people who want to leave their home countries to escape poverty and crises, or simply want to seek a better life. Unfortunately, many migrants who are smuggled will become victims of human trafficking and are exposed to sexual or labor exploitation, forced criminality, organ removal, and more. This session, the Legislature aimed to crack down on the cartels by passing enhanced penalties on smugglers to better protect our local communities and migrants preyed upon by the cartels. 

In the fight against human trafficking, it takes all of us to be vigilant for signs of human trafficking. Look out for individuals displaying physical abuse or fear. Be attentive to those lacking control over personal identification or travel documents, and individuals who appear excessively monitored or accompanied. Exercise caution when encountering people with limited communication or an inability to speak for themselves. Identify signs of coercion or force. Notice indicators like malnourishment, untreated medical conditions, or rehearsed responses. Remember: See Something. Say Something.   

For help, 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. 

Senator César J. Blanco proudly represents the people of Brewster, Culberson, El Paso, Hudspeth, Jeff Davis, Pecos, Presidio, and Reeves counties in the Texas Senate.