Letter From The President Of The Houston Bar Association

2012-09-20 12:44

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

As Houston attorneys we are proud of many areas in which our city excels – jobs, housing, the arts, medicine and space exploration, to name a few. When I became president of the Houston Bar Association (HBA), I learned even more about issues that define our community, as community service is such a big part of what we do as an organization. Unfortunately, I also learned about a darker statistic.

Houston is a hub for human trafficking. It is estimated that 18,000-20,000 foreign national victims enter the U.S. each year. Our city accounts for over 30 percent of calls from Texas to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. In 2005, the Department of Justice included Houston in its list of the most intense human trafficking jurisdictions in the nation. Texas in 2003 was one of the first two states to enact laws making human trafficking illegal on a state level, but the number of victims rescued and cases prosecuted remained few. I am pleased to report that is beginning to turn around, but it remains a pervasive crime that most of us know little about.

There are many reasons that human trafficking has grown significantly in Houston. We are the largest city in the southern U.S. and close to a border that connects us to Mexico, Central America and South America. Our international airports, port and interstates connect us to the world, and we have one of the most diverse populations in the nation. Our agricultural roots are strong, requiring inexpensive labor. Sexually oriented businesses thrive.

Because of the obvious legal issues involved in all aspects of this crime, I believe the legal community must get involved in solving the problem. We must start by educating our legal community and our community at large. Here are some of the things the HBA is doing this year to focus on the facts and legal realities of human trafficking:

  • Our Gender Fairness Committee sponsored a luncheon program in September that featured a panel from law enforcement, rescue organizations and advocacy groups discussing their roles in helping victims and prosecuting criminals, and suggesting ways individuals can help. We offered free CLE credit and lunch, and nearly 150 people attended.
  • The September-October issue of our magazine, The Houston Lawyer, focused on human trafficking, including articles by the U.S. Attorney’s office, the sheriff, and the county attorney on their successful prosecution of traffickers. The directors of local rescue organizations describe victims’ heartbreaking stories and their efforts to help regain their lives. A law school reports on its clinical program to help victims. This publication reaches more than 11,500 readers.
  • Our CLE Committee is planning an additional program later in the year that will focus on human trafficking issues.
  • Our annual Law & the Media seminar, which brings together journalists and attorneys to discuss topics of mutual interest, will have a component on human trafficking.

Human trafficking is a serious nationwide problem, and the Houston Bar Association is certainly not alone in its efforts. Laurel Bellows, president of the ABA,  announced a focus on mobilizing the legal community to pursue justice for victims. Texas Young Lawyers Association President C.E. Rhodes will develop a public awareness campaign. Houston Mayor Annise Parker created a 10-member Committee on Human Trafficking charged with devising strategies and goals for a community-based campaign to engage citizens in reporting and preventing this crime.

If your association or corporate community outreach program is working on a project involving human trafficking, please share it with us. I invite you to contact me or to visit our website, www.hba.org, where we will continue to share our ideas with you.

Yours Truly,

Brent Benoit