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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