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Hultgren: Human trafficking a concern closer to home

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” – 13th Amendment, United States Constitution

Nearly 150 years have passed since Congress ratified the 13th Amendment. Yet a modern form of slavery still plagues our nation and world.

Today, it is estimated that 21 million people worldwide are victims of modern slavery. The human trafficking industry – exploiting men, women and children through forced prostitution or forced labor – is the fastest growing and, tied with illegal arms, the second-largest criminal industry in the world.

Human trafficking is commonly dismissed as a global problem. However, many are unaware these repulsive acts are happening in our own backyard.

The U.S. is the second-highest destination for women trafficked throughout the world, and it is estimated that more than 100,000 children become victims of sex trafficking here annually. In greater Chicago, between 16,000 and 25,000 women and girls are estimated to be exploited by sex trafficking each year.

This insidious industry exploits our state’s vast transportation infrastructure and central location to use Illinois as a hub for exploitation. We are consistently ranked among the states with the highest number of reported cases by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline.

While Chicago and Cook County make up the bulk of human trafficking arrests in Illinois, the 14th Congressional District is not untouched by this industry and linked activities. A November report from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority showed that nearly one in 10 arrests occur in the collar counties (DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will). Sex trafficking victims can be solicited in places such as massage parlors and gentlemen’s clubs as police clamp down on activity downtown and demand spirals out into the suburbs.

In November, a Chicago man was sentenced to four years in prison for trafficking, forcing his girlfriend to work as a prostitute in Lake County. Just recently, women at four massage parlors in Crystal Lake were busted for prostitution – an illicit activity that goes hand in hand with trafficking. Typically, women such as those arrested are actually the victims – held and solicited against the law and against their will.

This crisis cannot be ignored, and we must exhaust every means necessary to challenge it. It is a crime that affects the whole community.

In Washington, I have made combating human trafficking a priority – working across the aisle to strengthen our nation’s human trafficking laws and bringing awareness to this issue so we can take decisive steps to end it once and for all. This past summer, I hosted a screening for members of Congress and their staff of “Nefarious: Merchant of Souls,” a documentary that unveils the hidden world of sex slavery as recounted by former victims and traffickers. It captures gripping testimonies of survivors in order to galvanize hope and vision for a solution.

Securing a meeting for representatives from Exodus Cry, producers of Nefarious, with key members of Congress was a major victory. The evidence they presented connecting countries who allow legal prostitution to increased trafficking led to the inclusion of key appropriations language related to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The language urged the State Department to increase scrutiny over countries which have legalized prostitution.

In addition, I have co-sponsored the Fraudulent Overseas Recruitment and Trafficking Elimination Act of 2013 (H.R. 3344) and am an original co-sponsor of H.Con.Res.66, a House Resolution urging that children trafficked in the U.S. be treated as victims of crime, not as perpetrators.

But like attacks on all of us who enjoy human dignity, we need to combat trafficking where we live.

As a community, we must together be vigilant in identifying cases of human trafficking and look for the red flags and key indicators of human trafficking victims. Is someone you know afraid to freely leave their home or workplace? Do they appear scared, submissive or coached on what to say? Do they lack personal possessions or a stable living situation? Are there any signs of physical or mental abuse? These red flags should be taken seriously and can be reported to NHTRC hotline by calling 888-373-7888.

Through legislative action and increased awareness, we can work to free our fellow humans from the bondage of slavery, bring perpetrators to justice and provide hope to victims.

• Republican Randy Hultgren represents Illinois’ 14th U.S. Congressional District.

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