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More data needed to address human trafficking in Indian Country

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Data on violent crime in Indian Country has been repeatedly verified but it's harder to find solid information on human trafficking even though Native women and their advocates say it's a huge problem in their communities.

Of the four federal agencies that investigate or prosecute human trafficking crimes, three aren't required to confirm whether the victims are Native, according to a new report. The fourth doesn't even have a way to record whether a victim is Native, the Government Accountability Office said.

As a result, it's not possible to determine the entire extent of the problem. So the data the GAO did uncover -- just 14 federal investigations and two federal prosecutions between fiscal years 2013 and 2016 -- is likely understated.

"In certain circumstances, state or tribal law enforcement may have jurisdiction to investigate crimes in Indian country; therefore, these figures likely do not represent the total number of human trafficking-related cases in Indian country," the GAO wrote in the report, which was released on April 6.

"Also, considering that human trafficking is known to be an underreported crime, it is unlikely that these figures, or any other investigative or prosecutorial data, represent the full extent to which human trafficking is occurring in Indian country," the report continued.

Of the 14 investigations identified by the GAO, 12 were handled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The agency is required by law to collect information on the tribal affiliation of a trafficking victim, according to the report.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, on the other hand, only collects information about a victim's Native status in "limited circumstances," the report stated. The agency handled the two remaining investigations during the period in question.

And Homeland Security Investigations, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, doesn't collect Native victim information at all, according to the report. No Indian Country cases were reported from the agency between 2013 and 2016.

On the prosecution side, the network of U.S. Attorneys across the nation are in a somewhat odd situation. They are required to disclose whether a human trafficking victim is Native -- but only when they decline to pursue a particular case, the report noted.

Of the two Indian Country trafficking cases that were prosecuted between 2013 and 2016, only one resulted in a conviction, according to the report. No details were provided about either case.

But the GAO pointed out that there were over 6,100 federal human trafficking investigations and about 1,000 federal human trafficking prosecutions in the United States between 2013 and 2015 alone so the reported figures again appear to vastly understate the problem. The last well-publicized human trafficking conviction in Indian Country occurred in North Dakota in 2012.

Native women are already working to address the issue by seeking more data about one aspect of the human trafficking crisis. They are pushing Congress to pass S.Res.60, which would designate May 5 as National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls.

"It's not a secret — we all know people," Tami Truett Jerue, the executive director of the Alaska Native Women's Resource Center, said at a briefing in Washington, D.C. in February.

While not all missing and murdered Native women and girls are victims of human trafficking, the issues are linked, advocates say. And both problems are tied to the high rates of domestic violence against Native women.

In that situation, numerous federal reports helped convince Congress to pass the Violence Against Women Act in 2013. A landmark provision of the law recognizes the "inherent" authority of tribes to arrest, prosecute and punish non-Indians who abuse their partners in Indian Country.

“Before we can address and end any injustice, we must first acknowledge the injustices,” Cherrah Giles, a citizen of the Muscogee Nation who chairs the board of directors of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, said at the briefing, underscoring the need for more data. Her organization is hosting a webinar next Wednesday to discuss human trafficking in Native communities.

The GAO delivered its report to the present and most recent leaders of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Lawmakers on the committee have been looking to set aside more funds for crime victims in Indian Country.

The GAO is planning to issue a second report later this year that includes perspectives from tribal and local law enforcement, as well as from victim service providers that deal with human trafficking in Indian Country and with Native victims, regardless of location.

Government Accountability Office Report:
Action Needed to Identify the Number of Native American Victims Receiving Federally-funded Services (April 6, 2017)

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