Feinstein: ‘Human trafficking is totally bad. It’s totally illegal. It ruins people’s lives’

Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Thursday applauded the collaboration between Fresno law enforcement and community groups in combating human trafficking.

“Today was a really unique meeting, because Fresno seems to have a very unique program,” Feinstein said after the Thursday gathering. “Here, there’s a community-police connection.”

Stopping human trafficking has been a concern of the senator’s for some time, and she said the opportunity to hear from law enforcement officials and community leaders at the meeting in Fresno will be helpful in crafting legislation to address the problem.

“Human trafficking has been relayed to me to be the second largest criminal industry in the United States, Feinstein said. “And young girls are trafficked all throughout America and throughout California. And pimps make a lot of money, and young girls have their lives ruined.”

California has the most cases of reported human trafficking in the U.S., and Fresno has the seventh-highest number of those cases, according to the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission’s Central Valley Against Human Trafficking Project. Bakersfield is ranked eighth.

And human trafficking is increasing, in part because of awareness in the community to report it, but also because of gang-related trafficking, the commission said.

Feinstein said 49 percent of girls who are traffficked are between ages 15 and 19, but 10 percent are 11 years old. Those involved in human trafficking should be vigorously prosecuted, she said.

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, who participated in the roundtable at Fresno police headquarters, said victims are often promised love and money, but “before they know it, what they’re promised is violence and death.”

Gangs have found that human trafficking is profitable, Mims said. And a sex trafficking circuit brings girls and women from other states to the area, she said.

But human trafficking was not against the law in California until 2012, Mims said. “Even if I wanted to prosecute, we had to go through prostitution or pimping or those kind of laws. Now there’s a specific law and it’s a felony.”

Lisa Smittcamp, Fresno County’s district attorney, thanked Feinstein for listening to her and the other roundtable participants. “She can take that information back to Washington to help formulate federal laws that will assist us in prosecuting these horrific animals who are violating our children, because what human trafficking does is it steals the innocence of our children.”

Fresno not only has a problem with sex trafficking, but it also has a problem with labor trafficking, which is difficult to investigate and prosecute, Smittcamp said. Fresno has one of the first labor trafficking cases in the state that is in the courts now, she said.

Labor trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. Victims are forced into labor through the use of force, fraud or coercion.

Melissa Gomez, program manager for the Central Valley Against Human Trafficking Project, also attended the roundtable. She said of the 11 pilot projects funded by the California Office of Emergency Services in 2016, the Fresno project served nearly half of the labor trafficking victims identified during the first year of funding. The highest rates of labor trafficking are among agricultural workers, domestic workers and in the illicit massage industry, she said.

Gomez said she is encouraged by Feinstein’s commitment to combat human trafficking. “It is Fresno EOC’s hope that this may draw attention to the specific challenges and needs that the Central Valley faces and the importance of increased funding for both law enforcement and victim services to address the comprehensive needs of victims and survivors,” she said.

Feinstein said federal laws can be passed so that human traffickers are tried by the federal government, and she said she is determined to get solicitation off of the internet, the place many young girls are lured by human traffickers.

Congress should not be divided along party lines on the issue of human trafficking, the Democratic senator said. “Human trafficking is totally bad. It’s totally illegal. It ruins people’s lives and the girls involved are true victims.”

Feinstein said she was moved by what she heard in Fresno. “People here care,” she said. “The spirit and stories and the overcoming I heard in this room. Very special.”

Barbara Anderson: 559-441-6310, @beehealthwriter

Central Valley victims of human trafficking since 2010

Total: 480

Females: 433

Males: 37

Younger than 18: 154

Older than 18: 314

Youngest age: 12

Sex trafficking: 358

Labor trafficking: 102

Sex and labor trafficking: 17

Foreign born: 138

Born in United States: 339

(Cases from Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, Tulare counties.)

Source: Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission’s Central Valley Against Human Trafficking Project