Op-Ed - Human-Trafficking: Closer to Home than You Think

Last fall, I reported progress on halting an appalling practice that is much closer to home than most of us realize, human-trafficking. Human-trafficking is a modern-day version of slavery that is thriving in the United States and sadly, in some our own communities. Every day, human beings are bought, sold, or smuggled so that others can profit from their forced labor or sexual servitude. While every state criminalizes at least some forms of trafficking activity, legislators across the nation continue to explore new ways to combat traffickers and provide support for victims.

Most of us are unaware, but human-trafficking is a lucrative business right here in northern Illinois. In this area, human traffickers are using the massage parlor industry as a cover and method for connecting sex-trade customers with mostly East Asian women, both documented and undocumented, who are being forced to perform sex acts. Operators of these parlors locate in communities where zoning laws do not specifically address licensure, lighting, dress codes, and hours of operation for massage parlors.

To counter the spread of this revolting industry, in August of last year, then Gov. Quinn signed into law a bill that takes a three-pronged approach to attacking human-trafficking issues. Senate Bill 3558, signed into law as Public Act 98-1013, sets fines against pimps, traffickers, and those who buy services from trafficking victims. The new law also expands forfeiture to those convicted of promoting this form of prostitution. Given that the physical, mental, and emotional toll the victims suffer is so significant, the new law also allows the state’s Department of Human Services to issue grants to support specialized services to aid in the healing process for victims. We are fortunate in Illinois to also have a “Safe Harbor” law on the books, which prevents sex-trafficking victims from being treated as criminals for the prostitution activities in which they were engaged.

To continue on the efforts of last fall, I have introduced House Bill 2556, which creates the Human-Trafficking Resource Center Notice Act. The goal of this legislation is to provide that specified businesses and establishments conspicuously provide information concerning the availability of the National Human-Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC). Not only will this legislation help victims of this heinous crime gain access to the resources they need to overcome the trauma they’ve experienced, but also be an avenue for anyone who observes or suspects trafficking of occurring to be able to report it to the proper authorities.

Providing information about a resource like NHTRC in our communities has a major impact on lessening the impact of human-trafficking because the majority of victims and witnesses do not know where to turn when they encounter it. Since the NHTRC began offering its services in December of 2007, more than 90,000 potential instances of human-trafficking have been reported, leading to nearly 19,000 cases brought against human-traffickers, saving thousands from the emotional and physical torment of this practice. The vast majority of the tips NHTRC has received came not from victims, but by concerned members of the community, which is why making information about NHTRC more readily available to the public is so important.

I am happy to report that a thorough and coordinated effort to rid our communities of these illegal establishments is taking place at the county and municipal levels. Under the leadership of Planning and Development Committee Chairman Joe Gottemoller, McHenry County is taking the lead in creating a very restrictive ordinance for the regulation of massage parlors located within the purview of the county. The Village of Algonquin and City of McHenry are also to be commended for the adoption of model ordinances that block virtually every loophole these criminals use. In addition, the City of Crystal Lake and the Villages of Spring Grove and Lake in the Hills are taking significant steps to close down massage parlors that are engaging in this terrible form of forced prostitution.

I applaud the efforts of our local leaders, and I will continue to work closely with them to ensure that state, county, and local laws that govern land use provide maximum protections to combat human-trafficking in our communities. I would also encourage the public to learn more about the impact of human-trafficking by visiting the NHTRC website at http://www.traffickingresourcecenter.org/, and do not hesitate to report any suspicion you may have of trafficking happening in your area by calling 1-888-373-7888. Your phone call could be a life-saver.

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