Growing up in Ponca City, I couldn't imagining ever walking into the White House and shaking hands with the president. But it happened to me, near the end of George W. Bush's second term. He invited me to watch him sign the reauthorization of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) to help stop trafficking and enslavement of women, children and men in Oklahoma and around the world.
The TVPA was named for the 19th-century Christian leader who led the fight to outlaw slave trading in the British Empire. Today, it shapes the federal government's efforts to end modern-day slavery. I stood proudly with faith leaders, congressional representatives, and an amazing woman who was once enslaved and now works to free others. We lined up behind President Bush and burst into applause as he signed the TVPA. It was a good day for freedom.
I hoped to be invited back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue during President Barack Obama's first term, as the TVPA requires reauthorization every few years. But there was no signing, no ceremony, nothing to applaud. For the first time since the TVPA was originally enacted in 2000, Congress failed to act.
In previous years, the TVPA has been reauthorized with overwhelming bipartisan support. This time some elected officials, including those from Oklahoma, are allowing renewal of the crucial bill to stall. Holding up America's signature legislation on trafficking tells those in slavery that help is not on the way. It tells traffickers that our resolve to arrest and prosecute them is faltering.
At least 27 million people are in slavery around the world, thousands of them in America. The victims are U.S.-born children, as well as people tricked into migrating here to live the American dream, only to be trapped as unpaid workers by vicious traffickers posing as legitimate labor recruiters.
In Oklahoma, teenagers from small towns were sold for sex in truck stops along Interstate 40, as depicted in the award-winning documentary film, “Not My Life.” A form of slavery can be found in every home, school, church, workplace and shopping mall in Oklahoma. That's because many everyday products are made by slaves in sweatshop factories overseas, or are made with slavery-tainted raw materials.
Modern slavery is an international crime, like terrorism. It must be met with a coordinated federal effort to end this complex and cross-border problem. Throughout Oklahoma, churches, schools, book clubs and youth groups have raised funds and awareness to fight human trafficking. They understand that in the land of the free, slavery is an abomination. We should join them in a simple message to Oklahoma's congressional delegation: Support reauthorization of the TVPA by becoming a co-sponsor or by dropping objections that prevent the bill from moving to a vote.
It's never too late to take a stand for justice and freedom.
Bales is a co-founder of the nonprofit group Free the Slaves (www.freetheslaves.net), and the author of several books on slavery.