WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp helped introduce a bipartisan bill to crack down on human trafficking in Indian Country.
The legislation builds on Heitkamp’s years-long efforts to improve public safety in Indian Country following her introduction of Savanna’s Act last year to address the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women, and passage of her bipartisan bill to expand AMBER Alerts in Indian Country, which was signed into law earlier this year. The new bill also follows Heitkamp’s Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which was signed into law earlier this year and her work since 2013 to combat human trafficking, including in Indian Country.
Heitkamp joined U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) to introduce the bipartisan End Trafficking of Native Americans Act to address the gaps between tribal communities and the federal government in combating human trafficking of Native Americans and Alaska Natives.
The National Institute of Justice reports that more than 56% of American Indian and Alaska Native women experience sexual violence in their lifetimes. Despite this high rate of sexual violence and the known correlation between high rates of sexual violence and trafficking, there were only 14 federal investigations and two federal prosecutions of human trafficking offenses in Indian Country from 2013 through 2016.
Their bill would establish an advisory committee on human trafficking comprised of law enforcement, tribal leaders, and service providers to make recommendations to the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and Department of Justice (DOJ) on combating human trafficking of Native Americans and Alaska Natives. The bill would also create a Human Trafficking Prevention Coordinator within the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to coordinate human trafficking prevention efforts across federal agencies.
“No community is immune to the horrific crime of human trafficking, and Indian Country faces unique challenges that leave too many crimes unsolved and too many victims without justice,” Heitkamp said. “Since joining the U.S. Senate, I’ve worked to shine a spotlight on human trafficking around the country and in North Dakota – and especially in Indian Country where it has been particularly prevalent. This important bill continues those efforts to keep all of our communities strong and safe. Our bipartisan bill builds on efforts to boost law enforcement in Indian Country and address underlying issues like poverty, drug addiction, and exposure to trauma that can lead to increased rates of trafficking. After victories getting two of my bipartisan bills signed into law – resulting in more resources for notice and awareness of missing children in Indian Country by creating an Amber Alert system and cracking down on sites like Backpage that knowingly facilitate human trafficking– we must continue to keep the heat on traffickers to prevent these disgusting crimes.”
The Committee established by the legislation would be composed of 15 members, including tribal, state, and local law enforcement, advocacy organizations, representatives of relevant federal agencies, and at least one Native American survivor of human trafficking.
The Committee would make recommendations to the DOI and DOJ on what more the departments can do to combat trafficking, including strategies for identifying and reporting human trafficking cases and identification of the legislative and administrative changes necessary.
The Committee would also develop best practices for tribes and law enforcement to identify trafficking victims, collect and share information on trafficking across systems and agencies, better understand the types and prevalence of trafficking in Indian Country, and improve coordination between law enforcement, victim stakeholders, and Native communities.
Heitkamp has long been working to combat human trafficking and build a robust public safety infrastructure in Indian Country. Heitkamp led an initial hearing in September 2013 to sound the alarm on the prevalence of human trafficking right in our own backyard, including in North Dakota, and she specifically made sure there were two witnesses who talked about the challenges of trafficking in Indian Country and the need to stop it.
The first bill she introduced as a U.S. senator – which was signed into law in 2016 – created a Commission on Native Children to address the major economic, social, justice, health, and educational disparities experienced by Native American children— and offer sustainable solutions to significantly improve outcomes. The final members of the Commission were appointed earlier this year and it has started its work.
In 2015, Heitkamp brought then-Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey to visit MHA Nation, where Heitkamp continued to press for a stronger federal law enforcement presence in Indian Country to combat the range of law enforcement challenges on the reservation. Additionally, Heitkamp joined Comey for a ribbon cutting ceremony at a new FBI facility in Williston, which Heitkamp pushed for.
Last October, Heitkamp introduced Savanna’s Act to make sure North Dakota’s tribes have the information and resources they need to protect Native women and girls from violence, abduction, and human trafficking. The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on the legislation, and it has attracted strong bipartisan support. Following the introduction of Savanna’s Act, Heitkamp launched the #NotInvisible social media campaign to raise awareness about the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women and bring it out of the shadows.
Earlier this year, Heitkamp’s bipartisan legislation to expand AMBER alerts in Indian Country was signed into law. Such alerts are critical for law enforcement efforts to quickly disseminate information to the public about abducted children to generate leads as quickly as possible, but currently such alerts are not available in many parts of Indian Country – or are limited to tribal lands.
In April, Heitkamp raised concerns about the administration’s proposed cuts to critical law enforcement and public safety programs in Indian Country. During a hearing on the president’s budget proposal for Indian programs, Heitkamp grilled a key Bureau of Indian Affairs official on how the proposed budget would slash federal funding for already underfunded law enforcement services and overwhelmed tribal justice programs and courts. Click here to watch a clip from her remarks.
Heitkamp helped write the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) – now signed into law – to hold websites like Backpage.com accountable for knowingly facilitating sex trafficking online. Following passage of her bill and a two-year investigation by the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, on which Heitkamp serves, Backpage.com was shut down.
Heitkamp has continued to introduce bills to address human trafficking, including legislation to provide resources for health care providers to stop human trafficking and protect runaway and homeless youth from trafficking. She successfully secured landmark anti-human trafficking protections for children in schools in the No Child Left Behind reform legislation. Building on that legislation, Heitkamp helped introduce a bill, which passed last fall in the U.S. Senate to boost assistance to victims of human trafficking, strengthen law enforcement and victims services organizations, and make sure perpetrators of these crimes are subject to harsher punishments.