Human Trafficking: An Oregon Reality (2012)
Janet Markee, Chair of Update on Human Trafficking
The following article is from Modern Slavery in Our Midst: A Human Rights Report on Ending Human Trafficking in Oregon, June 2010, prepared by the International Human Rights Clinic at Willamette University College of Law under the leadership of Professor Gwynne Skinner.
Human trafficking is a crime with transnational, state, and local implications. This crime, usually committed by individuals, small businesses, gangs, or family networks, is increasingly perpetrated by sophisticated, organized criminal enterprises. According to the United States Department of Human Services, trafficking in persons is now the second largest criminal industry in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people are trafficked internationally every year, and tens of thousands are trafficked annually in the U.S.
The Portland metropolitan area emerged in recent years as a main hub for sex trafficking. In the last two years Portland ranked second for the greatest number of children found in forced prostitution among all U.S. cities participating in a nationwide federal law-enforcement sting.
Oregon, like other states, is struggling to respond effectively to the adverse impacts of trafficking within its own borders. This rapidly growing problem not only plagues big cities like Portland, it also occurs in small towns and rural areas in Oregon.
Although trafficking in persons has been addressed primarily as a crime with national laws and international treaties that criminalize trafficking-related activities, it is equally important to recognize human trafficking as a human rights issue. Traffickers deprive their victims of fundamental rights to freedom and violate myriad other human rights in compelling or coercing labor and services. Victims of such involuntary employment–which many experts call modern-day slavery–suffer unconscion-able physical, sexual, and psychological abuse.
Oregon has become a magnet for human trafficking for a variety of reasons. First, the state has lax trafficking laws compared to those of Washington and California as well as relatively permissive interpretations of the state constitution’s free speech protections for commercial sex enterprises. Involuntary servitude and trafficking of persons in Oregon are designated as only Class C or B felonies, while adjacent states designate human trafficking crimes as Class A felonies with higher sentences and penalties, including state forfeiture of traffickers’ assets that are then used to compensate victims. These differences in law contribute to Oregon serving as a relatively safe haven for traffickers.
Other reasons that Oregon has a high rate of human trafficking include:
- The I-5 corridor makes transportation easy.
- Oregon has a high percentage of youth living in foster care, aging out of foster care, and living on the streets (including runaway and homeless children); these young people are vulnerable to exploitation.
- Farming and forestry depend on seasonal, migrant workers, who work in difficult-to-monitor rural areas. Some employers bring in workers from other countries, hold their visas, and then withhold pay or otherwise exploit their workers, threatening to send them home if they complain.
- Law-enforcement officials in rural areas are challenged by the dangers of patrolling remote regions of the state that are under the control of people growing marijuana and running other illegal drugs, operations which often go hand-in-hand with trafficking of persons.