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Obama: End trafficking of migrant workers

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President Barack Obama spoke this morning at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative. (Paul Morse/Clinton Global Initiative)


By JERRY HAGSTROM

NEW YORK CITY — President Barack Obama called here today for steps to eliminate the trafficking of human beings, including migrant farm workers in the United States.

In a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting, Obama devoted most of his time to discussing foreign cases, such as girls and women who are lured into prostitution and boys who are kidnapped and turned into soldiers.

But he added “Trafficking also goes on right here, in the United States. It’s the migrant worker unable to pay off the debt to his trafficker. The man, lured here with the promise of a job, his documents then taken, and forced to work endless hours in a kitchen. The teenage girl, beaten, forced to walk the streets. This should not be happening in the United States of America.”

Obama also noted that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has added the United States to the countries covered in the State Department’s annual reporting on human trafficking, and that his administration is preparing a new assessment of the situation in the United States “so we better understand the scope and scale of the problem.”

In addition, he said the administration is expanding its efforts stop trafficking in the United States.

“We’ve expanded our interagency task force to include more federal partners, including the FBI,” he said. “The intelligence community is devoting more resources to identifying trafficking networks. We’ve strengthened protections so that foreign-born workers know their rights.”

He continued, “We’ll strengthen training, so investigators and law enforcement are even better equipped to take action — and treat victims as victims, not as criminals. We’re going to work with Amtrak, and bus and truck inspectors, so that they’re on the lookout. We’ll help teachers and educators spot the signs as well, and better serve those who are vulnerable, especially our young people.”

Obama also said that procedures to obtain “T” visas for victims will be simplified so they can stay in the United States to assist in the prosecution of traffickers.

He said that human trafficking is “modern slavery,” and that he was not using that term lightly because “it evokes obviously one of the most painful chapters in our nation’s history.”

He praised “men and women of faith, who, like the great abolitionists before them, are truly doing the Lord’s work — evangelicals, the Catholic Church, International Justice Mission and World Relief, even individual congregations, like Passion City Church in Atlanta,” that are opposing trafficking.

He also said that his administration’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships will make the fight against human trafficking a focus of its work.

Although the extent of the human trafficking problem in farm labor is unclear, State Department documents indicated that officials have been concerned that recruiters of farm workers who qualify for H-2A visas were exploiting them by charging service fees.

Early last year the Labor Department changed its H-2A regulations to prohibit foreign recruiters from charging nonimmigrant temporary agricultural workers certain fees. Nongovernmental organizations reported that some recruiters adjusted their practices by charging fees related to workers obtaining their visas, levying charges under the guise of “service fees.”

DOL issued guidance under the H-2A program in May 2011, clarifying fees that may not be charged by employers or agents, and identifying those that may be charged by independent third-party facilitators.

In late 2008, before Obama took office, the State Department issued a report that said there were trafficking problems on farms that employed migrant workers, and that barbed wire on the top of fences surrounding workers’ dormitories and the presence of armed guards, guard dogs and locked gates were indicators that trafficking and forced labor might be taking place.