Hilton: Human trafficking happens in Michigan

Elise Hilton

Frequently, when I speak or write about human trafficking, a typical comment is “Well, it doesn’t happen here.”

Unfortunately, Michigan is the “here” where human trafficking occurs. The facts are grim:

■Michigan’s proximity to the Canadian border and waterways increases the likelihood of trafficking in our state.

■Michigan truck stops and hotels are used for sex trafficking.

■Major events such as ArtPrize and the North American International Auto Show are also major draws for sex trafficking in Michigan.

■Michigan agriculture, manufacturing and construction businesses attract labor trafficking.

For a human trafficker, Michigan is as much a playground as it is for a summer tourist. Men are brought here to work in fields, factories and construction sites under false pretenses, denied their rightful earnings and forced to live in deplorable conditions. Women and children are offered up as sex toys, with temporary brothels hastily set up for sporting events, conventions and other large gatherings.

For the investment of $90 (the going rate for a human being in the global market), a trafficker can expect to make about $27,000 a year for this business “asset.” A human being, unlike guns or drugs, can be sold over and over again.

Thankfully, human trafficking will not directly affect the life of most of Michigan’s citizens. But have no doubt: Human trafficking impacts each and every one of us.

In practical terms, trafficking has a startling detrimental effect on Michigan’s economy, draining money from the legitimate economy. Millions of dollars are laundered and go untaxed. Our state has had to fund increased training for law enforcement, medical personnel, first responders and educators.

We are obligated to arrest, try and convict offenders. When victims are recovered, they are in need of specialized care and services.

It would be helpful if reliable numbers were available, so we would know exactly how trafficking impacts Michigan’s economy. However, as the 2013 Report on Human Trafficking (published by the Attorney General’s Office) points out, “Michigan’s human trafficking response framework is particularly lacking in five key areas: data collection, victim services, professional training, public awareness, and legislative policy.”

This means that we do not have sound research on the economics, that victims in the state of Michigan lack quality after-care services, and that professionals expected to deal with the crime of trafficking and its victims are grossly undereducated. Furthermore, most Michigan residents have no idea that this crime even exists in our midst.

On the final point, legislative policy, Michigan is gaining ground. In October 2014, Gov. Rick Snyder passed a package of laws that will help prevent human trafficking, provide better education and awareness of the crime, and create better services to care for victims. The laws include:

■Making it a felony to solicit a person under 18 years old for prostitution

■Holding individuals who do not report human trafficking practices accountable by allowing seizure of personal property or possessions

■Allowing a victim’s convictions as a result of forced trafficking to be set aside

■Expanding juvenile court jurisdictions to protect children who are victims of human trafficking

The Attorney General’s office is calling for better data collection from law enforcement, social services and courts. Michigan’s colleges and universities are urged to further study human trafficking in our state in order to provide quality data.

Human trafficking is a crime that depends on our ignorance; it thrives on its hidden nature. Even in our beautiful state, injustice surrounds us, unseen. Education and awareness are important, but we must go beyond that. The high price of human trafficking demands that each and every one of us pull trafficking from the shadows to convict the criminals and aid the victims.

Elise Hilton is a writer and editor for the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, and the author of “A Vulnerable World: The High Price of Human Trafficking.”