Utah congressmen, Sen. Mike Lee discuss challenge of stopping human trafficking

Rep. Burgess Owens declines to say whether he’ll return a $2,000 donation from a colleague who is currently under investigation for human trafficking crimes.

Logan • Human trafficking exists everywhere, including in Utah, and finding solutions has bipartisan support in Washington, according to Utah’s congressional delegation. But there’s only so much legislation can do.

U.S. Sen. Mike Lee and Reps. John Curtis, Blake Moore and Burgess Owens spoke about the topic Saturday at a human trafficking policy and education summit, which also included trafficking survivors and former U.S. ambassadors. Utah’s elected leaders brought up myriad issues complicating human trafficking, including smugglers who exploit asylum seekers trying to reach the United States, objectification of girls and women in the media, and general confusion or lack of awareness about the extent of the problem.

“Our challenge is that trafficking is a hidden crime,” said John Cotton Richmond, former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

The summit was organized and hosted by the Malouf Foundation, a charity founded by Kacie and Sam Malouf, owners of Downeast clothing company and Malouf, a Cache Valley-based bedding and mattress company.

An estimated 24.9 million people are in forced labor situations, Richmond said, citing a 2017 International Labour Organization report. But it’s difficult to know just how many people are impacted by the issue.

“Part of that is because ... the surveys we use or the way we go about approaching that would focus on just one expression of trafficking,” Richmond said. “It might just focus on the sex trafficking of minor girls and then you miss the forced labor of adult men in agricultural fields.”

Lee said despite gridlock in Congress, there is broad support to address human exploitation on both sides of the aisle.

“There is a widespread, deeply rooted desire,” Lee said, “to stop human trafficking that is as strong and bipartisan as any coalition I’ve ever seen.”

But images objectifying women and glorifying trafficking permeate society. That helps fuel a market for trafficking and exploitation, Lee and other summit participants said. Most of those images are protected as free speech under the First Amendment, which means there’s little lawmakers can do. He encouraged members of the public to speak out when they see such portrayals on social media, advertising or other media.

“Say, ‘Don’t do that, don’t display girls and women that way,’” Lee said. “That could, perhaps, do more to stop human trafficking than any other single thing I can do.”

Lee sees immigration reform as key

Still, Lee said, he supported certain reforms on the congressional level, such as greater pressure on social media giants to rein in trafficking facilitated by their platforms, and by working with other nations.

The senator said lawmakers get lost, however, trying to solve big problems like human trafficking with equally large bills.

“If we would stop packaging [things] in one mega bill and allow for consideration of micro bills, particularly in the immigration area, we can start piece by piece,” Lee said. “It will become a confidence-building exercise.”

The Republican senator said he supported immigration reforms introduced by former President Donald Trump, including a “Remain in Mexico” policy that returns refugees across the border while they wait for a court hearing.

“If you require them to remain in Mexico while an asylum application is pending,” Lee said, “you’re going to see a decrease in the amount of trafficking.”

Migrants are attracted by the safety and relative economic security in the United States, Lee said, which causes them to embark on a dangerous trek to reach the border. Smugglers and traffickers exploit migrants on their journey, he added.

“If they know that when they get [here] they’re not immediately going be able to enter and remain [here] automatically, a lot of this will stop, and the drug cartels will stop profiting from them,” said Lee, who visited the U.S.-Mexico border late last month.

A 2019 investigation by The San Diego Union-Tribune, however, found human traffickers and drug cartels appeared to specifically exploit asylum seekers who enrolled in the “Remain in Mexico” program. Scaling back the U.S. asylum program under Trump caused a 70% decrease in the number of immigrant families crossing the border in a one-year period, according to Reuters.

Moore said he was encouraged by reforms made in Colombia to counter human trafficking, in partnership with the U.S. government, which he argued could be applied to other countries facing violence and poverty.

“Our support, in particular with economic development and other opportunities,” Moore said, “could be one of the most productive ways to address this.”

(Image courtesy of Malouf Foundation) Panel moderator Lanhee Chen, left, speaks to U.S. Reps. John Curtis, Burgess Owens and Blake Moore at a human trafficking summit on April 17, 2021.

Owens calls for compassion

Owens also recently visited the U.S.-Mexico border. He previously said people were crossing into the United States “coming to your neighborhoods, not knowing the language, not knowing the culture, and there is a cartel influence along the way.”

The freshman congressman took a more measured tone at Saturday’s summit.

“The key to this is we have been a very compassionate country; we always will be,” Owens said. “Every policy we put in place should be based around compassion, empathy and [commitment] toward the idea that when they do come here, it is going to be a benefit to them and to us.”

Friday afternoon, the Utah Democratic Party issued a news release calling on Owens to return a $2,000 donation from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for federal sex trafficking crimes and alleged exploitation of a 17-year-old girl. Owens declined to say Saturday whether he would return the contribution, which was issued in September 2020 by “Friends of Matt Gaetz.”

“What I would like to do now is talk about why we’re here,” Owens said when asked Saturday about the donation. “We have some remarkable front-line heroes that are here speaking ... so I really want to stay focused. Stay focused on human trafficking, sex trafficking.”

North American dollars as well as an appetite for drugs and other illicit activity fuel trafficking problems, Utah lawmakers acknowledged, and crime in other countries in Central and Southern America.

“To be frank,” Curtis said, “it’s the U.S. consumer driving this.”

But human trafficking and exploitation doesn’t just happen across the border or among the impoverished. It happens in affluent or middle-class places, too, including in Utah, summit panelists said.

“Most of us, when we think about human trafficking, we think kidnapping or picture someone shipped around in a container, chained up,” said Coco Berthmann, who escaped sexual trafficking and exploitation by her parents at 15 years old. “It happens right under our noses ... It doesn’t look like what we see in the movies, and it really happens in our neighborhoods.”

— Tribune reporter Bryan Schott contributed to this story.

10:17 a.m., April 20: This story has been updated to clarify the title of former ambassador John Cotton Richmond.