A bill to clamp down on modern-day slavery passed both houses of the New Jersey Legislature by a unanimous vote March 21, on the eve of Passover.
Among those supporting a crackdown on human trafficking is a multi-faith and multi-interest coalition coordinated by the Community Relations Committee of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
The bill increases penalties on those who recruit men or women into slavery, forced labor, or prostitution as well as those who patronize such practices. It now awaits the signature of Gov. Chris Christie.
“It makes the people who benefit from or use the services of human trafficking victims responsible,” said CRC director Melanie Roth Gorelick. “The symbolic thing is that this bill passed on the eve of Passover. That is the point of the bill for those of us who have been working on human trafficking. We would like to see slavery ended in New Jersey and around the world. That is a Jewish value, and there is an important role the Jewish community can play.
“Because of our interfaith and coalition work,” said Gorelick, “we have actually been a key player in the state to bring different groups together.”
Members of the The New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking include Hadassah, National Council of Jewish Women, State Association of Jewish Federations, the New Jersey Catholic Conference, the Junior League, a Christian organization called Love True, and the Polaris Project, a 10-year-old national organization dedicated to stamping out trafficking.
In addition to strengthening support services to trafficking victims, the bill forgives criminal convictions, job losses, evictions, and other penalties that survivors may have faced unjustly. And it requires special training for law enforcement officers in detecting trafficking.
The key sponsor of the bill in the Assembly was Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Dist. 37). Her spokesperson, Jennifer Holdsworth, said most victims in New Jersey, contrary to a widespread belief, are not undocumented immigrants.
“Many are runaways from the Midwest who apply for a modeling job or a nanny job or a domestic servant job and are then kept,” she told NJJN. “Their documents are taken, they are beaten, they are raped, and they are forced to be slaves.”
New Jersey’s Division of Criminal Justice has reported 179 cases of sex and labor trafficking in New Jersey in the past seven years, but experts estimate that there are actually thousands of incidents occurring each year in the state. On a national level, the U.S. State Department estimates that 50,000 men, women, and children are trafficked into the United States annually, on top of the 100,000 victims who are already in the country. Many instances go unreported.
Gorelick and other advocates are looking ahead to Feb. 2, 2014, when the Super Bowl will be played at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands.
She said that such big sporting events are often accompanied by an increase in human trafficking as people gather in large numbers “to have a good time. Over the last two Super Bowls, state attorneys general and nongovernmental organizations have worked together to deter human trafficking efforts from taking place in their states.”
On Friday, April 8, representatives of the coalition are scheduled to meet with government officials to discuss possible steps to take before the Super Bowl.
Gorelick also plans to meet with colleagues at the UJA-Jewish Federation of New York on April 22 to advise them on setting up a similar coalition in New York state.
Since January, Gorelick said, she has been wearing a black plastic bracelet stamped with the word “Abolitionist.” She received it during a Human Trafficking Awareness Day rally at Jefferson Township High School.
“This is not just a Jewish issue, but it happens to be that the Jewish community cares enough to help start these coalitions,” she said.