Slavery is demeaning, degrading and immoral. And, unfortunately, it's a secret. Too many Americans think it disappeared after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
That's why we were happy to hear that a multi-agency task force has been formed in Utah to work toward building a network that will identify and prosecute slavery cases locally, bringing relief to helpless victims. The Department of Justice says 79 people nationwide have been convicted of "human trafficking," the name often applied to slavery. But some estimates say as many as 20,000 enslaved people end up in the United States each year.
These aren't plantation workers, the common 19th century notion of a slave. Most of the modern ones are women and children, forced against their will to be prostitutes or to do other things within the sex industry. A few do work as servants. The State Department describes them typically as having been lured out of desperate poverty in foreign countries by the promise of jobs. Instead, they find themselves in a hopeless situation, forced into prostitution to pay for their passage here and threatened with retaliation against themselves and their families if they escape.
Often, they lack English-language skills, making escape a frightening proposition. The problem is made worse by two things: a small but growing societal attitude of acceptance toward prostitution as a career choice, and widespread disbelief in this country that slavery exists.
Here in Utah, authorities found a 14-year-old girl and her mother, who were being held by a Salt Lake couple and forced to work 12-hour days to pay their debt for being smuggled illegally into the country. They were told family members would be killed if they escaped, federal court documents said. The case didn't quite rise to the level of human trafficking charges, but authorities say it is an example of how the problem exists in Utah.
The Salt Lake Police Department was awarded a $450,000 grant this year to tackle the issue, which led to the formation of the task force. Two state lawmakers are considering a bill that would make prosecution easier and more effective.
At this point, any official recognition and effort toward ending this menace is important. The 19th century may have been rough in many ways, but at least there were abolitionists and underground railroads to help the victims. Today's slaves only wish they had such support.