Texas has become a major hub for human trafficking, state officials said yesterday while proposing a more aggressive response to what a senior government official described as "modern-day slavery".
Nearly 20% of human-trafficking victims found nationwide have been in Texas, according to a report released by the attorney general, Greg Abbott. The 57-page report, mandated by the legislature in 2007, also identifies Interstate 10 as a major route through Texas for human-trafficking rings.
Abbott released the report at a news conference with state senator Leticia Van de Putte, a Democrat who introduced legislation to combat the problem.
"These human traffickers are like cockroaches," she said.
Her bill, prepared for the 81st legislature, which convenes in January, would create a task force in the attorney general's office, start training programs for local law enforcement and implement an awareness campaign for communities. It also would improve programs for assisting victims.
Abbott, Van de Putte and other officials said human trafficking has grown into one of the nation's top criminal enterprises. Abbott's report, compiled from federal data, news reports and other research, said traffickers often lure victims into phony moneymaking opportunities, then hold them in slavery-like conditions.
Many are women and children forced into "despicable sex acts," Abbott said. An estimated 14,500 to 17,000 victims are brought into the United States from Asia, Latin America and eastern Europe, but an increasing number are US citizens.
"With its vast international border, large population and immense size, Texas continues to be both a destination point for human trafficking victims and a major route for the transportation of victims nationwide," the report said.
Up to 30% of calls to an international hot line for human-trafficking victims came from Texas, said Mandi Sheridan Kimball, a senior analyst for Children at Risk Public Policy and Law Center in Houston.
Bill Bernstein, deputy director of Dallas-based Mosaic Family Services, which helps trafficking victims in North Texas, said public officials "are just now" beginning to get a sense of how extensive the problem is.
"It can be almost any type of occupation," he said. One case in Tulsa, he said, involved men from India who had been enslaved to do welding. Other victims are forced to work in hotels, motels and restaurants, he said.
The attorney general's report cited a Fort Worth case reported in the Star-Telegram in early 2008 in which teenage gang members forced runaway girls into prostitution. When one girl tried to leave, the report said, the gang threatened to kill her parents.
Mike Barnett, an investigator for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in Houston, said he has investigated numerous cases because human-trafficking operations are often run in bars and nightclubs. In one case, businessmen from central America had gathered extensive "intelligence files" on the families of girls held in captivity to work in a bar, telling them that they would kill their loved ones back home if they tried to escape.
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