By Amanda Waldroupe, Staff Writer
Oregon is becoming known nationally as “a hub” for human and sex trafficking. The convergence of I-5 and I-89 makes Oregon “a particularly vulnerable place for trafficking,” says Chris Killmer, the program manager of Catholic Charities’ human trafficking program. Oregon’s proximity to California and Mexico, as well as Southeast Asia, its high number of migrant workers, and a thriving prostitution industry has resulted in a level of activity related to human trafficking that Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel calls “disturbing.”
“We have the perfect conditions for it,” Killmer says. “It’s a much larger problem here than anyone anticipated. We’re encountering more victims than we expected to encountered.”
The Oregon Legislature is beginning to tackle the problem with a bill that will be introduced and considered during the February special session, which begins Monday, Jan. 25.
The bill, HB 3623, encourages, but does not require, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to include informational material created by non-profits that work in human trafficking in the mailers the OLCC sends out with all liquor license renewals. The informational material would include basic information on human trafficking, as well as sticker advertising the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
It would immediately go into effect if passed.
“This bill is but the first of many steps,” says Representative Brent Barton (D-Clackamas), the sponsor of the bill.
The Oregon Legislature passed a law making human trafficking a crime in 2007, following a national trend to recognize at a local level the severity of the problem. The new bill is the Legislature’s first effort to begin creating programs and initiatives to punish traffickers and decrease the amount of human trafficking in the state.
If passed, the bill will have no financial impact.
“We wanted to have no fiscal impact because of the uncertain fiscal situation,” Barton says, referring to the current special election regarding Measures 66 and 67, tax measures that if not passed, will cause a $736 million hole in the state budget.
During a pre-session hearing of the House Human Services committee on January 14, state representatives, local Portland officials, and advocates all spoke of their shock and almost epiphanic realization of how serious the problem of human trafficking is in Oregon.
The Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force does not track data on human trafficking. But according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 300,000 U.S. citizens under the age of 18 are trafficked for sex each year.
They also spoke of how the bill Barton is sponsoring is the first of many legislative steps to begin curbing human trafficking.
Barton says the goal of the bill is to raise awareness about human trafficking among the public. Another hope is that more victims of human trafficking will call the hotline.
The bill is modeled after a law passed in Texas in 2007. That law made it a requirement for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to include informational material on human trafficking with liquor renewal licenses.
Maria Trujillo, the executive director of Houston Rescue and Restore, a non-profit focused on human trafficking in Houston, says that the calls to the National Hotline from the Houston area increased by 33 percent the year the law went into effect.
“Before the law was passed, we didn’t have very many calls,” Trujillo says.
“The precedent in Texas is helpful,” says Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-Portland), the chief co-sponsor of the bill.
Smith says having establishments across the state that need a liquor license — such has bars and restaurants — post informational material on human trafficking in conspicuous areas is a more powerful tool than would first be expected.
“There is no other state agency that has access to as many distribution channels,” Smith says.
Questions arose during the pre-session hearing regarding why the bill did not require the OLCC to include the materials. Barton says he is not concerned that establishments would not post the information on their premises.
“Time will tell,” McKeel says, if the law, though voluntary, will be effective.
Emphasizing the bill currently in the House is a “first step,” McKeel hopes there will be legislation in the future that will treats victims of human trafficking as victims, not criminals, as well as other legislation that can begin to beef up how Oregon curbs human trafficking.
In Portland, efforts are being made to build a shelter for victims of human trafficking. The Beaverton-based Transitions Global has been raising funds for the past year to build a 20-bed shelter for foreign victims of human trafficking. And McKeel’s office is in the “initial steps” of forming a partnership with a non-profit, and fund-raising to build a shelter for victims of domestic sex trafficking.
Advocates and politicians alike view shelters as a key component to stopping human trafficking. “If you don’t have an alternative to what you’re doing, you’re going to end up going back to what you’re doing,” Killmer says.
At the national level, Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden recently introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate that would provide $2.5 million in block grants for six pilot projects that would fund shelters and other services for trafficking victims.
Money, Killmer says, will ultimately be the key to how programs and advocates can help victims escape human trafficking. “There is a lot of public awareness already operating,” Killmer says. “There’s just not enough money to actually service victims.”