Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, On The Justice For Victims of Trafficking Act

On the floor yesterday, the Majority Leader claimed that last Congress, Senate Democrats “failed to bring any trafficking legislation to the floor.”   

I do not normally do this, but I must correct the record. The facts are exactly the opposite, and the Senate’s history must be clear on this.

Last Congress, despite the opposition of the majority of Senate Republicans, including Senators McConnell and Cornyn, Senate Democrats reauthorized our Nation’s two cornerstone pieces of legislation that protect victims of sexual violence and human trafficking – the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). Combined, these two bills reauthorized nearly $1 billion a year in funding for survivors of these horrible crimes. As we updated and modernized these landmark laws, we listened to the survivors and the advocates who work with them every day to make sure that our legislation responded to the real needs of real people. We were not looking for gimmicks or shortcuts. Instead, we dedicated hours of time learning about what was working and what needed to be improved in order to best meet the needs of survivors.

The end result was two bills that did more to prevent sexual assault and human trafficking and to reach more victims than ever before. Because of our comprehensive and inclusive approach, these bills had the strong and vocal support of more than 1,400 local, state and national organizations.

In addition to the successful reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act last Congress, I later moved a comprehensive package of legislation to address the issue of human trafficking here in the United States, which included critical support programs directed at runaway and homeless youth to prevent trafficking in the first place. Last year, that package, which included the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, as well as the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act, the Bringing Missing Children Home Act, and the Combat Human Trafficking Act, was reported out of the Judiciary Committee, which I chaired. I then sought the unanimous consent of the Senate to pass that bipartisan package, and every single Democratic Senator agreed. But Republicans blocked it. They objected to it. Senator McConnell failed to mention any of this yesterday.

So if such assertions are going to be loosely made on this floor, let the record be clear about who, in fact, stood in the way of protections for trafficking victims last year. Look to see which members voted against the reauthorizations of the Violence Against Women Act and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Those two laws were passed with the votes of every Senate Democrat. And last year, it was Republicans who obstructed passage of the subsequent comprehensive domestic anti-trafficking package, supported by every Democrat, that included critical trafficking prevention legislation. On top of all that, under Democratic leadership of the Senate Appropriations Committee, total appropriations for trafficking victims’ services more than doubled in FY 2015 – rising from $28.1 million to $58 million. 

When we look at the facts, it is simply outrageous and laughable to suggest Senate Democrats did not support anti-trafficking efforts last Congress. These facts matter and I cannot allow revisionist history to muddy the accomplishments we and so many advocates fought for in the last Congress.  

Regrettably, the newly empowered Senate Republicans have not continued the same survivor-led approach we took in the last Congress to pass VAWA and the TVPA. Instead they sought to use a new anti-trafficking bill, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (JVTA), to expand the reach of the Hyde Amendment and its restrictions on health care for these women who are survivors of trafficking crimes. In doing so, the same Senators who voted against VAWA and TVPA in the last Congress inserted unnecessary and destructive politics into what was otherwise a bipartisan anti-trafficking bill. The result was to needlessly tie the Senate in knots for weeks over this legislation. More importantly, Senate Republicans’ effort to expand the Hyde Amendment undermined what should be the very goal of anti-trafficking legislation – to help return dignity and self-determination to the lives of survivors of human trafficking. That was certainly the goal of our successful effort to expand the scope of VAWA and TVPA to reach all victims.

It is also the goal behind the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act that I re-introduced with Senator Collins this Congress. This bill, which was a critical part of the debate last Congress and should remain a critical part of the debate in this Congress, aims to prevent young people from becoming victims of trafficking in the first place. We know runaway and homeless children are exceptionally vulnerable to human traffickers. These children literally have nowhere to go.  And traffickers prey on this vulnerability. That is why Senator Collins and I fought so hard to add this legislation to the JVTA. The runaway and homeless youth programs supported by our bill keep kids safe, save lives, and prevent human trafficking in the first place.

I was very disappointed when our amendment failed to pass by just four votes. What was most disheartening was that the principal objection was the inclusion of an important nondiscrimination provision to ensure that no child, including those who identify as LGBT, faces discrimination by service providers. But I am not giving up. I will keep fighting to see this legislation passed because it is so important. As the Polaris Project, a leading anti-trafficking advocacy organization, recently told the New York Times, “Successful efforts to combat modern slavery must address the root causes that make people vulnerable in the first place…Until critical funding is reauthorized through the Runaway and Homeless Youth [and] Trafficking Prevention Act to support critical services, such as shelter beds for homeless kids, this population will face increased risk.” 

Senator McConnell and I may differ in our opinions, but I think it is important to get it right when it comes to facts. To say that Senate Democrats failed to move anti-trafficking legislation last Congress rewrites history and does a tremendous disservice to all of those victims and advocates who so recently dedicated years of their lives to the successful reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and to crafting a bipartisan package of anti-trafficking legislation that was ultimately blocked by Senate Republicans.

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