President Obama Unveils Landmark Actions To Fight Human Trafficking

President Obama spoke at the Clinton Global Initiative Tuesday.

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This story was updated at 2:34 p.m. to add comment from Ambassador Luis CdeBaca.

President Barack Obama unveiled major actions to fight human trafficking at home and abroad in a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative's annual meeting Tuesday, a problem the U.S. has long sought to control.

Just hours after his Republican challenger Mitt Romney spoke to the same audience, arguing broadly that free trade and aid were the key to a better world, Obama chose to focus his speech on the single issue of trafficking, and what the U.S. can do to stop it. Obama told the assembled audience it was time to turn the focus on fighting trafficking within American borders.

"The bitter truth is that trafficking also goes on right here," he said. "It's the migrant worker unable to pay off the debt to his trafficker... The teenage girl—beaten, forced to walk the streets. This should not be happening in the United States of America."

The president also said it was time to call human trafficking by its real name: "modern slavery." Obama's speech came just days after the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 that freed millions of slaves across the United States.

Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, who oversees the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, says that the term "human trafficking" has long been used by diplomats as a euphemism, because "slavery is an uncomfortable word."

"But slavery should be uncomfortable... And the president's speech today shows it's okay to look into this dark place, and name the evil for what it actually is," says CdeBaca.

The president also used the speech to announce a new assessment of the scope and scale of human trafficking in the U.S., ticking off a host of occupations the U.S. would enlist to help, including law enforcement officers, bus and truck inspectors, teachers and educators.

The State Department estimates that between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked to the U.S. every year, but the real number is likely much higher. It estimates there are up to 27 million victims of modern slavery worldwide.

Obama also said Tuesday that the U.S. would better fight traffickers using technology. The State Department is already employing the technology of websites like SlaveryFootprint.org, which tracks the everyday household items—like toys, T-shirts or telephones—that are made with the help of slave labor.

Anna Kolhede, spokeswoman for Slavery Footprint, said a new "Made in a Free World" platform was just unveiled that will teach companies how to eradicate forced labor from their supply chains.

The president said Tuesday he had also signed a new executive order to ensure the U.S. would "lead by example" on trafficking-free government contracting. "We're making clear that American tax dollars must never, ever be used to support the trafficking of human beings," Obama said. "We will have zero tolerance. We mean what we say. We will enforce it."

The president talked, too, of new efforts to help victims of human trafficking recover, promising better access to treatment, legal services and job searches, as well as a simpler visa process for victims brought to America against their will.

The Obama administration has mostly focused its energies in the past four years on going after traffickers. A record number of human traffickers were charged last year in the U.S., and the State Department recently passed sanctions against the worst human trafficking offenders around the world.

But the administration had never before launched an initiative of this size aimed at tackling the issue.

"There has actually never been this amount of time dedicated to talking about [human trafficking] in a public forum—by any government figure," says Kolhede. "And the fact that it's coming from the president... It's absolutely historic."

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