Arally in Tallahassee on Wednesday marked a "Day of Awareness" in the fight against domestic human trafficking, whose criminal enterprises range from sexual slavery to organ harvesting.
"What is transpiring behind our backs is nothing less than a systemic corruption of our youth and our society," said Nathan Wilson, head of the anti-trafficking group, Project Meridian. "This problem goes beyond isolated incidents of sexual exploitation.
"Sex trafficking of minors has proliferated within our borders, and most Americans are oblivious to the gravity of the situation," Wilson said at the Capitol.
On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously advanced a bill to strengthen and broaden state statutes against human trafficking in Florida.
Chairman Will Snyder, R-Stuart, said that, as a Martin County sheriff's deputy, he has witnessed "immigrants forced into sex slavery in migrant camps."
But he said local and state law-enforcement agencies are hampered by weak laws and low penalties.
"My bill brings the sentencing structure up to federal level and, recognizing the multi-jurisdictional nature of these crimes, it empowers the statewide prosecutor, the attorney general andstatewide grand jury," Snyder said.
Snyder's proposed committee bill also authorizes wiretapping and forfeiture, mirroring federal RICO statutes.
"We believe [human trafficking] is an organized racketeering enterprise," Snyder said. "Smugglers don't necessarily use force, but they use coercion, take passports and threaten families back home."
State Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, introduced a similar anti-trafficking measure, Senate Bill 1880, on Monday.
Sex trafficking has become a major issue that requires our immediate attention. It is imperative that we do everything we can to help the victims who have suffered from this horrible trade," said Flores, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Attorney General Pam Bondi said her office wants "to make Florida a zero-tolerance state for human trafficking."
In an interview with Sunshine State News, Wilson, whose organization is based in Washington, said the tentacles of human trafficking are far-flung and insidious.
"Modeling agencies are a point of access to young people. The media need to stop talking about 'runaways.' It's manipulation and it's abduction," Wilson said.
Wilson said that when organ harvesting is included in the trafficking figures, the size of the global industry grows to an estimated $200 billion a year.
The U.S. State Department estimates that some 700,000 people, mostly women and children, are trafficked across national borders annually, with Florida serving as a prime port for U.S traffic.
"Florida is commonly cited along with New York and California as being one of the top three destinations for trafficking victims in the United States," according to a report by Florida NOW.
"Victims of sex trafficking typically wind up in large cities, vacation and tourist spots, and near military bases, where the demand for sex trafficking is incredibly high. Floridas economic climate, largely dependent on agriculture and tourism, renders it an ideal destination for human trafficking victims," NOW said.
In Washington, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has sponsored the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act to update and upgrade current federal law.
"I hope the Senate will take up this anti-trafficking legislation this year in order to improve it and pass it. The first step in combating this crime is awareness, and I urge my fellow Floridians to learn more about human trafficking and what can be done to stop it," Rubio said in a statement issued Wednesday.
Contact Kenric Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (772) 801-5341.