In 2010, by presidential proclamation, January was declared National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Since then, twelve presidential proclamations have followed. These proclamations not only raise the profile of the issue, but they are also snapshots of global trends and challenges, and significant U.S. anti-trafficking policy achievements. Some highlights include:
• In 2012, the issuance of the Executive Order ‘Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking in Persons in Federal Contracts‘;
• In 2016, the first convening of the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking;
• In 2017, the State Department’s launched its largest anti-trafficking program, the Program to End Modern Slavery; and
• In 2020, the launch of a whole-of-government website on human trafficking implementing part of the Executive Order on Combating Human Trafficking and Online Child Exploitation.
It was actually in 2006 that the issue of modern slavery and trafficking came to the attention of Venita Benitez, who had more than a passing interest in the subject as the descendant of slaves herself. On her mother’s side, Benitez is the great-great-granddaughter of Morton Deane, a black man born into slavery in Buckingham County, Virginia in 1853 who was freed before the end of the Civil War. He and his wife Nannie Mosely Jackson parented 11 children, all but two of whom survived into adulthood.
Prior to the restrictions wrought by Jim Crow, Deane served on the Richmond, Virginia Common Council from 1894-96 and was one of five African Americans to win a seat on the eight-man Richmond City Council.
Meanwhile, on her father’s side, Benitez is the first generation in her family born in America. As a young man, her father had been recruited to the U.S. from Puerto Rico under false pretenses offering a better life in America, instead working as a hired servant in the town of Bowling Green, Florida, about 78 miles outside of Fort Myers.
“My dad did hard labor working the vegetable crop in the fields, where daily he was called outside his home and heard, ‘If you don’t work, you don’t eat,’” Benitez says. “This would have been in the mid-1950s. The living conditions were deplorable and harsh. The workers were treated and punished like slaves, living in small cabins all bunched together with little food or drinking water. He suffered through one particularly extreme winter freeze where the crops froze. The workers were literally thrown in a truck and dropped off with only spare change in their pockets near Fort Myers and set free with nowhere to go, forced to fend for themselves. It was unconscionable.”
Benitez wrote a letter to the United Nations seeking more information on the subject of modern slavery in 2009. She received back from the UN a recently published book entitled The Slave Trade that detailed the astonishing number of men, women, and children who were being enslaved throughout the world. She was devastated by their report.
“This led me to Google, what is the United States doing to combat modern slavery and human trafficking?” Benitez recalls. “And that directed me to the 2010 proclamation declaring each January to be National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. It felt insignificant to me as if someone had just issued an immediate release and forgotten about it.”
What especially bothered Benitez was the idea that not many news organizations seemed to pick up on this information about the proclamation, and the fact it was released on January 4, 2010, giving media outlets literally no time to put in place any awareness programs in advance.
“It just disappointed me,” she admits.
Another press release promoting National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month was issued the following year. This time, it was at least issued nine days before the end of 2010 leading up to 2011 (on December 22) but left off the part about it being “A Proclamation.” It also seemed to minimize the urgency of the problem by failing to adequately promote the crackdown on the abuses of forced labor, sexual trafficking, child soldiering, child kidnapping, and involuntary domestic servitude, in Benitez’s view.
“Now, I was feeling downright disturbed,” she stresses. “It was clear to me the issue was losing steam. It felt to me like the White House and our country weren’t taking this nearly seriously enough.”
So, Benitez in early 2011, wrote a letter to President Obama outlining her feelings and the fact she no longer cared to see slavery and human trafficking reduced to the level of mere immediate release, just a piece of paper, going through the motions, very halfhearted. She wanted to see the proclamation in hard copy form and wrote the President for it directly.
Benitez remained frustrated by the lack of focus on the problem throughout the rest of 2011. Then came the day in February 2012 that she received a dark yellowish envelope with a return address of The White House. She opened it to find a genuine proclamation complete with an embossed raised Presidential Seal (SEAL OF THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES) detailing the 2012 promotion of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, one with far greater importance in the wording.
That wording was highlighted in all caps by words that spelled out the newfound seriousness with which the issue was being taken: “BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA – A PROCLAMATION.”
“I was very pleased to get this personal response,” Benitez says, “but not due to any personal glory. It was because my letter seemed to light a fire under the Presidential administration and spur action on an issue so near and dear to my soul. It wasn’t just dashed off as an afterthought immediate release anymore.”
The actual wording of that 2012 proclamation captured the significance now being attached to the crisis. It reads in part, “Human trafficking endangers the lives of millions of people around the world, and it is a crime that knows no borders. Trafficking networks operate both domestically and transnationally, and although abuses disproportionately affect women and girls, the victims of this ongoing global tragedy are men, women, and children of all ages…It leaves no country untouched. With this knowledge, we rededicate ourselves to forging robust international partnerships that strengthen global anti-trafficking efforts, and to confronting traffickers here at home.”
Too, the 2012 proclamation was accompanied by the issuance of an Executive Order Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking in Persons in Federal Contracts.
But had this been simply a one-time crackdown, it wouldn’t have meant much to Benitez. What fills her with strength and gratitude is the fact that every proclamation, by him, over the past several years that’s followed also reads, “BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA – A PROCLAMATION,” along with the fact that each succeeding annual proclamation attaches greater seriousness and concern to the atrocity of modern slavery and human trafficking in America and around the world. The year-by-year wording gets more and more powerful.
Meanwhile, the fight goes on as we pass the 10th anniversary (2012) of what Venita Benitez saw as the first true physical anti-trafficking proclamation to emerge from Washington. It also demonstrated the power of how a single dedicated private citizen can strengthen the narrative through the simple eloquence of raising awareness through dedicated activism.
“I’m honored to claim a measure of credit for the increased consciousness of and focus on this deadly important issue,” Benitez says. “None of us should feel the original vision of the 13th Amendment is being upheld until all forms of slavery and trafficking are eradicated.”
The U.S. Department of State notes in an official fact sheet today that by some estimates, as many as 24.9 million adults and children remain trapped in some form of human trafficking worldwide, including in the United States.