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.”

Q & A with Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Luis CdeBaca

CIVIL BEAT: You were recently in Hawaii for meetings about human trafficking. Can you talk a little bit about the purpose of your trip?

AMBASSADOR LUIS CDEBACA: I was in Hawaii in February in order to attend a human trafficking meeting that was being hosted by Pacific Command. The military and the Department of Defense have been a key partner on this fight against modern slavery, responding to what Admiral (Robert) Willard wanted to do as far as the problem of human trafficking within the area of responsibility that PACOM has. It was something that was for me very important considering that there’s so many other countries in the Asia-Pacific region that have real serious trafficking problems.

So you got a chance to familiarize yourself with Hawaii. As a federal prosecutor, had you worked on human trafficking cases here before?

When I was a federal prosecutor in the Civil Rights Division I was the lead trial prosecutor in the case United States vs. Kil Soo Lee, which was tried in District Court in Hawaii in front of Judge Susan Oki Mollway. That was a case that was out of American Samoa and it was about a little more than 300 Chinese and Vietnamese garment workers being held is servitude in a garment factory. And since the nearest federal judicial presence was in Hawaii, the case was naturally done there.

So I was in Hawaii regularly for about two years, and while we were in trial I was living downtown for 7 or 8 months full-time — not enough to be kamaaina, but certainly enough to feel like I’ve definitely lived in Hawaii for awhile.

Given the time you spent here, and also being able to come back as the ambassador, what would be your assessment of the human trafficking problem in Hawaii? How big of a problem is it here?

I think that like all of the other states and territories, Hawaii has a trafficking problem. We’ve seen that from cases, whether they’re in the federal system not just in prostitution situations but also in some of the forced labor cases, whether is the Tongan men who were held captive on a farm or whether it’s the recent cases that are still in court that are alleging abuse by labor recruiters and farmers. But also the cases that are done at the local level, with some of these abusive pimps, whether it’s child prostitution or adult women who are being held by coercive means.

Those are cases that we see in Hawaii just like we see everywhere else. So it seems like there is 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. There’s … a specific type of problem that we see in island nations around the world. Those are problems we see in parts of the United States whether it’s Guam, Hawaii, Puerto Rico.

Can you talk a little bit more about that — does Hawaii have other specific facets to it that make our state more or less vulnerable to trafficking?

One of the things that we see is that as the economy in Hawaii changes, that there are still some old patterns that happen. For instance, this idea of bringing in people from other countries to do the work in the fields, or the hardest type of work.

I went to the Plantation Museum when I was living in Hawaii and doing that case, and reading some of the letters from the Japanese and Filipino workers who were being held in debt bondage more than 100 years ago.

Those letters that they were sending to their families about their situation were eerily like what we hear from the foreign workers who are being held in servitude in the year 2011.

So I think that it’s one of those things where many people in Hawaii have been touched by this, which is I think one of the reasons why there’s so much compassion. As you’ve seen the debate in recent years in the Legislature, no one is ignoring the fact that there are people who need help. It seems like there are some discussions on different approaches on how to help them. But by and large, I think that folks in Hawaii — because of the history of the islands and what people’s families went through — people have a baseline understanding that this happens and how it is that this could happen.

What about the military, do they play a role here? Does it have any impact on the scale of human trafficking in Hawaii that the state has such a high concentration of military personnel?

Most of the reports that we’ve seen about military presence contributing to the demand for trafficking situations — in other words the demand for commercial sex which traffickers then rush to meet through violence and force — most of what we’ve seen as far as research and published accounts have had to do with other countries where we have a permanent presence or a long term presence. Like in the Korean peninsula, or it’s places where our guys are on shore leave or what have you. We haven’t really seen the same type of research, the same kind of reporting about the military presence in Hawaii as far as being a contributing factor to demand.

What we’re hoping — and one of the things that came out of the meetings I had at PACOM — was perhaps that the military could be part of the solution. The idea is that we’ve got a lot of folks who live and work, especially on Oahu, who very much want to be a part of their community. And 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. And the military has folks who have language skills. So I think that that might be something that comes out of my meetings with PACOM — how can we tap into the desire of the folks that are in the military family to actually pitch in and help and be part of that solution.

So you would be the bridge between state and military then to help coordinate that?
Well, I think that we could certainly play part of a role. The State Dept. has an intergovernmental affairs office that most of my work is focused on the governments around the world, not just the United States government. Though I’m a little unique in that I’m the only ambassador who has domestic responsibility as well because I’m the head of the interagency effort at the federal level.

I think the thought is that we can both, with the community liaisons that DOD has, and with the State Dept., that we can help be that bridge between the military family and the civilian community in Hawaii and try to help set up those linkages.

In your opinion, which problem is more serious in Hawaii — labor or sex trafficking?

I have to say that I was watching Hawaii 5-0 the other day, and [McGarrett] grabbed a set of binoculars. And when you look through a set of night vision binoculars the most important thing is infrared light. Whereas if you look through a set of regular binoculars, the most important thing is natural light.

I think that to some degree when you’re looking at labor or sex trafficking in a state, it’s as much what lens you’re looking through as to what you see. And so I don’t necessarily think we’re in a position to say that one of these has more of a problem in Hawaii than the other one.

I think that folks who work on labor trafficking exclusively tend to see labor trafficking cases when they look at a jurisdiction. Folks whose calling is to work on sex trafficking sometimes when they look at a jurisdiction that’s what they see.

What we’re mandated to do as the federal government is to look at all trafficking, whether it’s for sex or labor, whether it’s for men or women, whether it’s adults or children and we have to look at all of the victims and figure out how do we respond to all of them. Which is why — it’s certainly why the federal law applies to both sex and labor — the effective trafficking laws that are out there are not just labor trafficking or just sex trafficking. They’re a holistic approach so you can truly see the entire problem.

What do you think about the fact that Hawaii is one of only five states without a human trafficking law? Do you think the state should have its own law addressing the problem?

Well, I tell you it kind of depends on when you go to print. Because if Gov. (Robert) McDonnell signs the three bills that passed the Virginia Legislature the other day, that could end up changing.

It’s interesting because I deal with countries around the world who are in the process of modernizing their existing laws. And over the last 10 years, the passage of the United Nations protocol and the United States Trafficking Victims Protection Act, there are dozens and dozens of countries — I think it’s over 120 or 130 now — that have enacted modern laws.

And those discussions often take the same form as what we’ve seen in Hawaii with folks who had been enforcing similar laws before the enactment of the federal trafficking law or the UN protocol saying “well these laws are sufficient” and the NGO community saying “well you need to do updates.”

I have been able to draw a few conclusions by looking at how that discourse goes around the world. Not only do we have 125 or 130 countries around the world that went through this process, we now have I think 52 U.S. based territories that have gone through this process and several others that are currently going through the process.

So on the basis of that 175 sample size…one of the things we’ve seen 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 fact of 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. this is what we saw in California.

In California, they had an involuntary servitude law that was a good law. It was legally sufficient to prosecute a pimp that had enslaved a prostitute. It was legally sufficient to prosecute a farmer who had enslaved a farm worker. And yet none of those cases were being done. So the law was on the books but the cases weren’t being done.

Now there’s been several trafficking laws passed in California, including one to look at the problem of ridding business’ supply chain of trafficked goods or human trafficking situations. And the Attorney General’s office — at that point it was Jerry Brown — the Attorney General’s office went out and trained law enforcement all the state. And so what did we see happen?

There was a case that really stuck with me. I think it’s about three years ago or so.

A sheriff’s deputy in a small town in northern California had received training through the AG’s office and responded to what he thought was a domestic violence call. And I can almost guarantee you that if there hadn’t been a trafficking law passed to update California’s existing statutes, and he hadn’t received that training, he would have thought that it was just a domestic violence call in a hotel.

But instead he started looking at the power dynamics and he said you know this sounds like, this looks like, trafficking. He asked more questions and it turns out it was a pimp who had been beating up and holding this woman in servitude. And they prosecuted the guy under the new trafficking law. I don’t think that would have happened if California had stayed with its old laws, even though those laws were sufficient legally.

I had good conversations when I was in Hawaii with both the task force — the human trafficking task force, a group of law enforcement and NGOs as well as some of the state victim and human services folks — and the prosecutor’s office. I think there’s a desire on the part of all of these actors to identify cases and help the victims. Now the notion that the Legislature is wrestling with is, how do you do that in a way that ends up being the best as far as the legal framework.

Do you have a suggestion of what a good law might look like? Or one that has worked in other states that perhaps Hawaii could emulate. There has been a lot of that debate here about overlapping statutes, a new law that would cover something that was already covered…

Well if the law already covers something, and is so similar that it already basically is a human trafficking statute — and we’ve seen this with some other countries — then one solution to that is to just rename it.

Instead of saying, oh, well, our involuntary servitude law is great enough, we just want to keep that and we don’t want to have a human trafficking law. We’ve seen some countries that have said OK, our involuntary servitude statute is great, but we need to make sure that it is a part of something bigger called the human trafficking law so that when we have involuntary servitude prosecutions, we know that we’re counting them as part of our human trafficking enforcement.

That’s what the federal law does, frankly. The federal law had the involuntary statutes that dated back to the Civil War. Those still exist.

In fact that was the case that I brought in American Samoa. Many of the charges were under the old law, but we called it a human trafficking case because that’s what that area of law is now described as.

So sometimes we can look at those things and say well maybe we don’t need to change this particular statute, but we need to move it into a different chapter in the criminal code, we need to count it differently, for data purposes, we say that that is a human trafficking case. And no changes are needed. Other times it’s better to have wholesale changes.

For me when I look at it, based on what we’ve seen around the world, the best human trafficking law is the one that makes it very clear that movement is not required. Because otherwise the focus becomes on the movement of the worker or the prostitute rather than on the exploitation.

And then it also makes it clear that it has two different crimes based on the level of force. So if you had overt physical force or overt threats on the one hand, but then having another crime that makes it clear that psychological manipulation and coercion is still a violation. That basically helps us recognize what we’ve learned over the last 30 years with the domestic violence movement, with the sexual violence movement, those things like Stockholm Syndrome and things like that.

So to me, I guess that boils down to something that’s based on exploitation instead of movement and something that 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. That’s not a law that takes a lot of time to write.

While you were here, you met with Neil Abercrombie, our governor, the Honolulu prosecutor… What was your main message to them?

One of the things that we want to make sure is that the folks in Hawaii know that they’re part of a larger American anti-trafficking community — and I don’t just mean the advocates.

I think that sometimes law enforcement and folks at the state government think ‘Oh well, the advocates are part of a larger community — that’s the anti trafficking community’ when in fact, whether it’s in HPD, whether it’s folks in ICE or in the prosecutor or U.S. Attorney’s Office, they too are part of a growing and developing anti-trafficking community around the country.

And so I think that we’re looking to see how that fits in with the National Association of District Attorneys, the National Attorneys General Association, etc. There’s a number of other governors — not just Gov. Abercrombie, who was also very good on this issue when he was in Congress — but there’s a number of other governors now around the country that this (has become) a very important issue to them personally. And so we want to make sure the Governors Association starts dealing with it.

So I think the thing that crossed all of the meetings that I had was that conversation about … people in Hawaii are not being left to their own devices to make it up on their own or anything like that. There’s very much a community of interest that wants to be there to help.

Where does Hawaii fit into the global picture with this issue? Anecdotally we’ve always heard that Hawaii is a gateway to Asia coming into the U.S.

I think it’s one of those things where Hawaii can be the solution. Because Hawaii is such a convenient place to do work with Asia, law enforcement communities whether it’s in Tonga, Western Samoa, Palau, often they look to Hawaii, they look to Guam for law enforcement training, whether it’s on drugs, money laundering or hopefully on human trafficking.

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 how to deal with a trafficking problem. And I think that hopefully, we’d be able to use the Hawaii experience as a platform for more policy in the Pacific Region.

Is it fair to think that the federal government will be able to pick up a majority of cases here? The federal government here has obviously focused a lot of attention on labor trafficking…what with the Global Horizons case out of Honolulu… but when it comes to sex trafficking, those cases are less visible. Is it fair to think that the feds will carry most of the human trafficking case burden or do you expect more involvement from local government, especially in sex trafficking…

Well I think we’re getting to the point where the feds should not be carrying the burden. The notion of the feds carrying the burden on slavery cases is a historical artifact from a time when the federal government had to do both the slavery and the hate crimes cases because a large part of the United States was under federal military occupation.

And just as we’ve seen in the last 15 years, the notion that states have passed their own hate crimes cases, no longer do you have to have folks from Washington get sent down to prosecute the clan while the head of the clan is the sheriff — that type of a situation, which we have had in our lifetimes.

That pretty much is a thing of the past with regard to hate crimes and I think that is starting to change in human trafficking as well.

When I started my career and I’ve only been working on trafficking for 15 or 16 years, there still was that notion that the Civil Rights Division had to send somebody down because the local law enforcement was never going to cross the plantation owner, was never going to cross the farmer or the wealthy who had a domestic servant.

And I think that with the enactment of state and territorial laws across the country you now see the situation where state and local (authorities) feeling more comfortable about doing these cases, and are more likely to do these cases. You know there were years in there where almost all the sex trafficking cases in the country were being done by two or three lawyers out of the Justice Department. Now we’re starting to see sex trafficking cases being done by prosecutors and cops from local communities. So I think we’re getting to he 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 reflects community standards, so that it reflects the priorities of the state or the city where it’s being done. Otherwise it’s imposed from outside, and that’s never good.

So does the public play a role here? How can they help be a part of the solution to end human trafficking?

Well I think that there are several things that the public can do, like I mentioned earlier in the discussion about PACOM, there’s volunteering. Everybody knows how to do something and most of those things are things that trafficking victims or the groups that work with them need. If somebody knows how to do construction, they can help refurbish an apartment for a girl who’s escaped from her pimp and needs a place to stay.

But as far as broader and more structural activism, I think there’s kind of two ways. First, there’s the don’t be part of the problem. So that means having a kind of personal and moral center. That one’s pretty easy to say — don’t go to prostitutes. Creating the demand the traffickers then respond to — these guys would not enslave women for prostitution in the absence of a market and that market responds to demand.

On the other hand, it’s not good enough for someone to say “Oh, well, I don’t do that so it’s not my problem,” because everybody’s eating chocolate and wearing cotton shirts and carrying cell phones that have minerals that were probably mined by enslaved people in the Eastern Congo or other war torn parts of Africa. Which means that we have to start asking those questions about what our own individual slavery footprint is.

And there’s a few tools for that are under development, they’re not really online yet. But in the meantime, beginning to ask those questions, getting involved. There’s a human trafficking and slavery portal on change.org for instance that you can go to that usually has good action items as far as this particular product is something that a slave painted or this particular congressman has a good bill that would help victims as they cycle out of the brothels and back into real life or what have you.

So that’s I think it’s a personal behavior, but also harnessing the power of the consumer to start demanding to have slave-free goods.

It’s interesting you mention the cell phones and devices. It’s really easy to forget about those.

Well I think that’s the thing. We’d like to think that we’re especially if we’re working on the issue that we’re not contributing to it. I think the big fight over the next couple of years is to have a place where companies can safely say ‘Here’s what we’re doing to clean up our supply chain.’

Marilyn Carlson, who owns Radisson Hotels and TGI Fridays and other businesses like that, she has made it a point for her business to train her people on how to stop the pedophiles from bringing children into hotels, how to make sure that the hotels are not destabilizing the local economy. So people can vote with their pocket book and go to TGI Fridays…that kind of thing.

I think the Carlson companies can do that in some ways because they are privately held and so if Marilyn decides that she wants to put the power of her company behind something like this she can. I think a lot of the big corporations right now are interested in this but they’re a little nervous because they think people will misunderstand.

If you say that a particular company has done a great job of taking care of their slavery problem, some people see that and say ‘Oh, they had a slavery problem.’

I think that some of the big corporations are worried about harming their reputations if they admitted they even needed to look at their supply chain, so that’s another thing as far as consumers are concerned. Reward companies when they are taking a stance.

The Body Shop, for example, is making sure that all of its products are ethically sourced and they’re taking some of their profits and putting it toward getting new laws passed, helping NGOs around the world. So people have a decision they can make as to whether they want to buy their products at Body Shop or some other place that doesn’t do.

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