Cries of “Stop trafficking now!” filled the air outside the Texas Capitol building on an overcast, dreary morning in Austin.
State representatives, advocates and leaders of faith-based organizations gathered on the capitol steps on Jan. 22 for a human trafficking awareness and prevention rally cosponsored by roughly a dozen groups, including the Texas Baptists’ Christian Life Commission.
Ross Chandler, pastor of First Baptist Church of Marble Falls, Texas, offered an invocation, followed by brief comments from several state representatives who spoke about the importance of working across party lines and collaborating with faith partners and other groups to end trafficking.
“This is a battle; it is a war. It does take the legislature, but more importantly it takes … nonprofits, churches, individuals, groups, civic organizations,” said Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston). “This is a nonpartisan fight. We are all in this together.”
Cheers erupted when Huffman reported that the Texas Senate’s proposed budget contains $89 million for trafficking prevention, investigation and prosecution efforts, a $64 million increase from the last legislative session.
Other speakers, including Rep. Ana Hernandez (D-Houston), who called trafficking awareness and prevention “a people issue” and emphasized the importance of vigilance in every neighborhood and community to end trafficking, echoed Huffman’s focus on bipartisanship.
Proverbs 31 calls us “to give voice to the voiceless … to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves,” said Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano), who described anti-trafficking work as “a spiritual battle.”
“The average age of a victim of human trafficking is anywhere from 12 to 14 years old, and they don’t have a voice,” he said, thanking those gathered for being advocates for vulnerable children.
Bob Sanborn, president and CEO of Children at Risk, highlighted the negative impact of trafficking on children in his remarks, reporting “there are 35,000 children every day in the state of Texas that attend school … within 1,000 feet of an illegal massage business.”
Illicit massage businesses, colloquially referred to as “massage parlors,” are often used as a cover for trafficking operations.
Representatives shared about bipartisan anti-trafficking legislation under consideration this legislative session, including efforts to stiffen punishments for traffickers and buyers, to reduce the demand that fuels trafficking and to reduce the number of children in foster care who end up in sex trafficking.
As representatives spoke of the need to protect children, advocates behind them held signs saying “Free Mia” – a reference to a teenager who was in the Texas foster care system and became a trafficking victim.
Her story and name have come to represent the state’s failings to protect the most vulnerable from exploitation and trafficking.
The signs offered a poignant backdrop, reminding those present of the constant vigilance required to bring the cries of “Stop trafficking now!” into reality.