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Wed April 25, 2012
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Holder Vows 'Zero Tolerance' To Human Trafficking

Originally published on Wed April 25, 2012 7:13 am

Forced labor and underage prostitution are hiding in plain sight in cities all over the U.S. and are no longer problems confined to the developing world, according to Attorney General Eric Holder.

In a major speech on human trafficking Tuesday in Little Rock, Ark., Holder said far too many reports of abuse cross his desk each week, more than 40 percent of them involving children.

"I think about my girls Maya and Brooke, and I wonder about the parents of these girls i read about — what must they be feeling, what must they be wondering? Sometimes they don't know where their daughters are," Holder said.

For a long time, those images seemed to belong an ocean away: brothels in Thailand; sweatshops in Southeast Asia. But there were a record 120 such cases in the U.S. in the past year, including Ukrainian immigrants forced to work for virtually no wages in Philadelphia, and street gangs selling the body of a 12-year-old runaway girl in northern Virginia.

Holder recounted one such case: "We restored freedom to undocumented Eastern European women and convicted the trafficker who brutally exploited them in massage parlors in Chicago and even branded them with tattoos to claim them as his property," he said.

That message resonated for Heath Carelock, a student at the University of Arkansas' Clinton School of Public Service.

"When you hear about these things on your own back door or back step, it's something we need to be more vigilant with," he said. "Now that it's in the rhetoric of an attorney general of the United States, I think it makes it easier to talk about."

Holder's speech was originally planned to happen at President Clinton's Presidential Library, but so many people RSVP'd — more than 800 in all — that the talk was moved to the nearby convention center.

Holder's aides say talking in Little Rock made sense because Holder served as a top Justice Department deputy during the Clinton years, and because the former president signed a law to help victims of human trafficking in 2000.

But the new push to fight modern-day slavery is very much a priority for this administration, Holder says.

"In this country and under this administration, human trafficking will not be tolerated," Holder said, "and that a zero tolerance, one-strike approach has taken hold I don't think could be more clear."

Barbara Thexton of Hot Springs, Ark., said the talk left her with many questions.

"I was wondering what happens to the people who are brought here illegally. What happens after we find them?" she said. "Do we see to it that they get to their families back in their own countries? Do we have a program to help them readjust?"

Holder says the U.S. government is trying to help victims of human trafficking, and he's working with the U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to try to make the system easier.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Attorney General Eric Holder would like you to think about the problem of human trafficking. Some people may associate forced labor or child prostitution with developing nations.

MONTAGNE: But this nation's top law-enforcement officer says you can find them in cities across America. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson heard Holder's talk in Little Rock, Arkansas.

ERIC HOLDER: Well, good evening.

GROUP: Evening.

HOLDER: Oh, come on folks, we're in Little Rock. Good evening.

GROUP: Good evening.

HOLDER: There you go. There you go.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: But the mood didn't stay light for long, given the dark subject matter. The attorney general says far too many reports of abuse cross his desk each week. More than 40 percent of them, he says, involve children - an issue that hits close to home.

HOLDER: I think about my girls, Maya and Brooke, and I wonder about the parents of these girls who I read about. What must they be feeling? What must they be wondering, because perhaps they don't know where their daughters are.

JOHNSON: For a long time, those images seemed to belong an ocean away - brothels in Thailand, sweatshops in Southeast Asia. But take a look at some recent federal cases, a record nearly 120 of them in the past year: Ukrainian immigrants forced to work for virtually no wages in Philadelphia; street gangs selling the body of a 12-year-old runaway girl in Northern Virginia; and then, Eric Holder says, there's this case.

HOLDER: We restored freedom to undocumented Eastern European women, and convicted the trafficker who brutally exploited them in massage parlors in Chicago, and even branded them with tattoos to claim them as his property.

JOHNSON: That message resonated for Heath Carelock. He's a student at the Clinton School for Public Service here.

HEATH CARELOCK: When you hear about these things on your own back door or back step, it's something we need to more vigilant with. Now that it's in the rhetoric of an attorney general of the United States, I think it makes it easier to talk about.

JOHNSON: Holder's speech was originally planned to happen at President Bill Clinton's library. But so many people RSVP'd - more than 800 in all - that they moved the talk to the nearby convention center. Holder's aides say talking here in Little Rock made sense because Holder served as a top Justice Department deputy during the Clinton years, and because former president Clinton signed a law to help victims of human trafficking back in 2000. But the new push to fight modern-day slavery is very much a priority for this administration, Holder says.

HOLDER: In this country and under this administration, human trafficking will not be tolerated; and that a zero-tolerance, one-strike approach has taken hold, I don't think could be more clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

JOHNSON: We caught up with Barbara Thexton, of Hot Springs, on her way out the door. She says the talk left her with a lot of questions.

BARBARA THEXTON: And I was wondering, what happens to the people who are brought here illegally. What happens after we find them? Do we see to it that they get to their families back in their own countries? Do we have a program to help them readjust?

JOHNSON: Holder says the U.S. government is trying to help victims of human trafficking. Justice is giving out grants to community groups, and he's working with the State Department and Homeland Security to try to make life easier for those victims.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Little Rock. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.