Why We Should Care About Human Trafficking Legislation

Although human exploitation has been around almost from the beginning of time, human trafficking was first recognized as a crime in the United States when the term appeared in legislation in the 1920s. Since then, laws at the State, Federal and international levels have been passed to protect victims of labor and sex trafficking and punish traffickers and purchasers.

These laws enable governments and communities to better protect victim populations, reduce workplace vulnerability, provide support services to survivors, and increase investigations and prosecution of human trafficking as a crime.

We need to urge Congress to take the fight against human trafficking to the next level

“It [human trafficking] ought to concern every person, because it is a debasement of our common humanity. It ought to concern every community, because it tears at our social fabric. It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets. It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime. I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name – modern slavery.”   

President Barack Obama

Historical Timeline of Trafficking Related Legislation


Historical legislation recognized the concept of modern slavery and sought to address it as early as 1910.

1910 - The Mann Act of 1910
The Mann Act and its amendments make it a felony to “knowingly persuade, induce, entice, or coerce an individual to travel across state lines to engage in prostitution or attempts to do so.” This law, over time, has led to the mistaken assumption that trafficking is illegal only when state lines are crossed.

1930 - The Tariff Act of 1930
The Tariff Act prohibits importing goods made with forced or indentured labor. The law was expanded in 2009 as the Customs and Facilitations and Trade Enforcement (CFTRE) Reauthorization Act, which specifically included goods made by victims of human trafficking. 

The original Tariff Act was only used a few times because of an exemption stating that such goods could be allowed if consumer demand could not be met without them. The Trade Facilitation and Trade Reinforcement Act of 2015 (Section 910) closed this loophole. 

1970 - The Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act
This famous legislation provides tools for the federal government to prosecute members of organized crime for racketeering offenses, including human trafficking.

Recent Laws

Here are some more recent landmark laws – both Federal and California – specifically related to human trafficking.  

2000 The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000 – also known as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000
This act, the first major federal law aimed exclusively as human trafficking, defined the crimes of sex trafficking and labor trafficking and established methods for prosecuting traffickers and protecting victims. The act has been reauthorized four times since its original passage (2003, 2005, 2008 and 2013).

2000 United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime 
This omnibus legislation, managed by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, is the world’s main instrument used in the fight against international organized crime.  Two of the three protocols developed to supplement this convention are directed specifically at prevention, suppression and punishment for human trafficking and smuggling of persons.

2003 The PROTECT Act
The “Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today” established enhanced penalties for sexual exploitation of children and created the Amber Alert System used today to help find missing children.

2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act
This act established the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center to integrate Federal enforcement and response efforts related to alien smuggling, human trafficking, and terrorist travel.

2004 California Megan’s Law
This law provides the public with information about the whereabouts of registered sex offenders.

2006 California Trafficking Victims Protection Act
California’s first human trafficking law established human trafficking as a felony; provided for restitution to victims, and established a statewide task force, the California Alliance to Combat Trafficking and Slavery (CA ACTS) to analyze California’s response to human trafficking.  The first report of the Alliance was published in 2007; an update to that report was published in 2012.  (California human trafficking legislation focuses on four categories:  penalty provisions, asset forfeiture, civil nuisance, and victim resources.)

2012 Proposition 35, Californians Against Sexual Exploitation (CASE) Act Initiative
This proposition, approved by 81% of California voters in 2012, was the most successful ballot initiative since California’s ballot process began in 1914. The law increases prison terms for human traffickers, established sex offender registration, and mandates law enforcement training on human trafficking.

2012 Human Trafficking Public Posting Requirements
This California law requires local businesses to post notices containing information about human trafficking, with information about rescue services.

2015 Global Action Against Trafficking in Persons and the Smuggling of Migrants (the Glo Act)
This joint initiative by the European Union (EU) and The UN Office on Drugs and Crime, in partnership with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), focuses on assisting governmental and non-governmental organizations and victims of trafficking and smuggling

2015 Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act
One of the Federal government’s newest omnibus laws, signed in May 2015, amends and expands existing laws related to human trafficking.  The law expands definitions of child abuse, increases penalties for convictions, and provides funding for recovery programs for trafficking children, among other critical elements.

2015 California Fair Day’s Pay Act
This law enforces money and civil judgments against employers convicted of nonpayment of wages for work performed in California.  The judgments are particularly important to victims of labor trafficking:  farm workers, service providers and hourly retail workers.

2016 International Megan’s Law to Prevent Child Exploitation and Other Sexual Crimes Through Advance Notification of Traveling Sex Offenders
This Federal law establishes an “Angel Watch Center” to receive and report notifications concerning registered sex offenders seeking to enter the United States.

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