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The Department of Homeland Security has made strides in combating human trafficking but needs additional resources from Congress, Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Tuesday.
Mayorkas discussed DHS’s work in an exclusive interview with Bloomberg Government ahead of the release of a report highlighting the department’s anti-trafficking efforts last year.
“I don’t think that people understand how widespread this heinous crime is and how an engagement by the public as well as the government is required to combat it,” the secretary said.
The department has expanded anti-trafficking work in recent years as part of a governmentwide crackdown on exploitation in the US and abroad, with nearly 30 million victims of sex trafficking and forced labor estimated globally. DHS teams investigate incidents, support victims, train law enforcement partners, and enforce trade laws related to trafficking.
The report’s release came on the last day of National Human Trafficking Prevention Month.
Over the past year, US Customs and Border Protection began enforcing a new federal law aimed at preventing the import of goods to the US from areas of China linked to Uyghur forced labor, and Homeland Security Investigations reported increases in trafficking investigations, arrests, indictments, and convictions compared to the previous year.
“One of the things that we will continue to advocate for is additional resources so that we can execute on these lines of effort at an ever-increasing level,” Mayorkas said.
DHS is still evaluating its annual funding request for the next fiscal year, he added. President Joe Biden is planning to release his next budget proposal on March 9.
Critics have accused the Biden administration of enabling human trafficking in some contexts, especially around the US-Mexico border. They argue that by scrapping several Trump-era border restrictions, the administration has emboldened criminal organizations to attempt more trafficking.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R), a regular courtroom foe of the administration, on Tuesday urged House Republicans to investigate the impact of the Biden administration’s border policies on human trafficking and other problems.
Some anti-trafficking and immigrants’ rights advocates counter that Trump-style blockades on border crossings are exactly what drive desperate migrants into the hands of criminal organizations.
Mayorkas said he “elevated” anti-trafficking work as one of DHS’s top priorities and stressed that it’s an issue not just at land borders, but also at maritime borders and airports, and within the US. The secretary has met with representatives of the hospitality and air travel industries to raise awareness about the signs of trafficking and how to report suspicious behavior.
He credited Congress for passing a bipartisan measure last year to formally authorize and strengthen DHS’s Center for Countering Human Trafficking, which was established two years ago to coordinate efforts across the department.
“That centralized body where all of the different participants throughout the department can coalesce and gain greater focus and greater strength to the effort in combating human trafficking is going to pay dividends in years to come,” Mayorkas said.
The center will use the new law to support more human trafficking investigations, improve collaboration across agencies, and collect more data on trafficking, director Cardell Morant said in Tuesday’s report.
To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org