U.S. Ambassador: Hawaii Could Use a Human Trafficking Statute

Sara Lin/Civil Beat

Local prosecutors and law enforcement have said that Hawaii does not need a human trafficking bill. They say existing laws are adequate.

But President Barack Obama's personal ambassador on human trafficking says otherwise. Luis CdeBaca, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, told Civil Beat that it's important for states to pass anti-trafficking statutes even if they think the problem is covered by existing laws.

Hawaii, if it passed a human trafficking law, could lead the way and become a model for countries and territories across the Pacific Rim, he said. And CdeBaca knows something about the region's trafficking problems.

As a federal prosecutor in 2003, he won convictions against a garment factory owner in what was then the largest slavery prosecution in U.S. history, involving the enslavement of more than 300 Vietnamese and Chinese workers in American Samoa.

Human trafficking is the illegal trade of human beings for forced labor or sexual exploitation. Hawaii remains one of five states without a law banning the practice. Last year, former Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed what would have been Hawaii's first human trafficking law after law enforcement said the bill was worded poorly.

CdeBaca was in Hawaii last month to talk human trafficking with the military leadership and local stakeholders including Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro.

Notably, CdeBaca offers counter-arguments to local law enforcement — Kaneshiro included — who say that existing laws are adequate.

Civil Beat caught up with the ambassador after his trip and spent 30 minutes talking over the phone with him about Hawaii's human trafficking problems. A few highlights from our conversation:

  • Human trafficking problems are made worse in Hawaii because the state is made up of islands: "I think that like all of the other states and territories, Hawaii has a trafficking problem...I think it's sometimes exacerbated by the fact that, especially with foreign victims, once they're in Hawaii, they're not necessarily able to go somewhere else."

  • The military wants to be part of the solution: "I think that you've got a very untapped base of potential volunteers who have skills. If somebody's in the JAG corps, they could volunteer to help the victims with some of their legal needs, pro bono. And people who have medical or counseling skills could launch and work with victims that way."

  • A human trafficking law means law enforcement would get new training to recognize a modern crime: "When a jurisdiction passes a trafficking law, even if they had a perfectly good forced prostitution law or a perfectly good slavery law, the newness of the trafficking law — and the need to do training, the need to do updating — the trafficking law itself drives a series of reforms at least within police and prosecutors' offices that then results in more cases being done more effectively."

  • An ideal human trafficking bill would be "based on exploitation instead of movement...and has both overt force and also a second offense that would provide for cases that were more psychological — psychological dependency, psychological exploitation. And that's a fairly simple law actually."

  • "If Hawaii can get a modern anti-trafficking statute passed that not only has the modern definitions, the ability to direct cases, but also then victim protections, then I could really see Hawaii as a place where people from the Pacific Rim come to study."

  • "I think we're getting to the point where the Feds should not be carrying the burden. The federal law enforcement should always only be a gap filler because law enforcement should be done at the community level so that it reflect community standards."

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