A federal analysis failed to reach significant conclusions about human trafficking in Indian country, but that didn't stop John and Cindy McCain from flogging their favorite piñata.
If you listened only to Sen. John McCain and his wife Cindy during a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs earlier this fall, you might conclude that American Indian reservations are overrun by human trafficking, and that the online classified-ad site Backpage.com is to blame.
But the September 27 hearing itself, and nearly all of the testimony, had nothing to do with Backpage. And as is often the case when policymakers invoke the problematic cliché that human trafficking is a national epidemic, those present were able to offer scant statistical support for the contention that reservations are rife with the scourge.
On the contrary, Gretta Goodwin, director of homeland security and justice issues at the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), testified that from fiscal year 2013 to 2016, there were “fourteen federal investigations and two federal prosecutions of human-trafficking offenses in Indian country or of Native Americans.”
Goodwin did assert that human trafficking is an “underreported crime,” and so the statistics “may not represent the full extent to which this crime is occurring.”
But she also revealed that while conducting research for two reports on the subject, the GAO discovered that the four federal law-enforcement agencies tasked with investigating and prosecuting violations of federal human-trafficking statutes on tribal land do not keep data on whether the victims they encounter are American Indians.
A representative of the U.S. Department of Justice, the agency that oversees such prosecutions, later testified that DOJ is reluctant to require this information because doing so might violate a victim’s right to privacy, and that victims might be less likely to come forward if they knew they’d have to state their ethnicity.
During questioning, Senator McCain, a longstanding member of the Indian Affairs Committee, pressed Goodwin on whether the human-trafficking situation in Indian country had improved, worsened, or stayed the same.
Goodwin reiterated that “no one really knows the full extent to which it’s happening,” which leaves the GAO with accounts from representatives of tribal law-enforcement agencies who “felt like it is increasing.”
That response was at odds with McCain’s opening statement, as well as that of his wife, who was present as a witness in her role as co-chair of the Arizona Human Trafficking Council.
Both McCains used the hearing to stump for passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 (SESTA), which would create an exception to the federal law that grants websites immunity for content posted by users.
Lawmakers have attempted to tailor the proposed legislation to target Backpage, alleging that the company intentionally facilitates illegal activity. Others — whose number includes tech experts, legal scholars, and state and federal judges — have pointed out that Backpage operates in the same fashion as other websites that host user-generated content, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and thus rightly falls under the First Amendment umbrella that shields those companies for content posted by others.
In his opening remarks, John McCain characterized human trafficking on reservations as “rampant.” He condemned “websites like Backpage.com,” alleging that they are “knowingly exploiting Native Americans and Alaska natives.” And he thanked his Senate colleagues for hammering out SESTA “to hold online traffickers accountable for their crimes.”
Cindy McCain, too, linked Backpage to unchecked human trafficking on Indian reservations.
Without offering any evidence, McCain echoed her husband, stating that Backpage “knowingly promotes the abuse of our beautiful Native American children,” adding that victims are frequently “kidnapped, sold, and transported to remote places like Asia and the Middle East.”
American Indian girls and women are “all too often trafficked by their own relatives,” she said. And the prevalence of Indian gaming and “urbanizing tribes” have only served to make matters worse.
To drive home her point, she related a personal anecdote:
“I witnessed with my own eyes six little girls lined up against a wall in a casino outside of Phoenix on display for customers.
“These children were silent and visibly scared. I contacted hotel security. Unsure what to do, security personnel allowed the children to remain at the casino. I have found that Native Americans are largely overlooked as victims.”
Front Page Confidential reached out to a representative for Cindy McCain seeking details about this incident but have yet to receive a response.
When Sen. Jon Tester, a gruff, no-nonsense Montana Democrat, asked McCain to compare the occurrence of human trafficking on the reservation versus off the reservation, she replied that “per capita, it’s very high on the reservations.”
On the other hand, she described how the McCain Institute partnered with Arizona State University to research sex trafficking during big events such as the Super Bowl. (The theory that the Super Bowl attracts hordes of sex traffickers doesn’t line up with law-enforcement statistics and has been debunked on other fronts. Moreover, one of those fronts was Arizona State University.) She said researchers found it difficult to pin down data related to American Indians.
“We tried to do the best we could on finding out how many or if there were any Native American victims involved in that,” she said. “It’s very hard to find…. We worked with several other tech companies to help us do this and it’s very hard.”
At another point, she insisted that it was necessary to educate the tribes on the issue, observing that the Navajo Nation recently passed its own anti-trafficking statute.
“All of this is just fine,” she said, referring to the hearing, “but the tribal councils have to realize and tribes have to realize internally, this is wrong! It’s wrong.
“And I think it’s up to us who work in this arena, and that work on the issue itself, to begin just that process, much like what happened on the Navajo Nation, in making them understand — not making them understand — helping them realize it’s important that they buy in on this, and we all work together on the issue.”
Nicole Matthews, an American Indian who serves as executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition, also testified at the hearing. But she was mainly concerned about a lack of federal resources for assisting trafficking victims.
Matthews discussed at length a survey her organization conducted that polled 105 American Indian and Alaska Native women about their experiences “of being used in prostitution and trafficking.”
She said 21 percent of the women mentioned being trafficked on reservations. She also noted that “the primary buyer and seller is non-native.”
In fact, when the women were asked about the ethnicity of those buyers and sellers, “the overwhelming response was ‘white,’ followed by ‘African-American’ men.”
Jason Thompson, acting director of the Office of Justice Services for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, testified that he believes human-trafficking issues on reservations are “on the rise.”
But Thompson hedged that claim, and the stats he brought to the table didn’t back him up.
Testifying in uniform, Thompson explained that his office offers a wide array of law-enforcement services in Indian country, including criminal investigations and police personnel. He said that over the past four years, his office conducted fourteen human-trafficking investigations.
The results: twelve people charged with engaging in prostitution; six charged with solicitation; and five charged with pandering.
Tester, the Montana Democrat, then bore in on a line of questioning that illuminated how easily statistics involving prostitution arrests morph into human-trafficking numbers.
The two are not the same. Prostitution is consensual commercial sex between adults. Federal law defines human trafficking as:
- “Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.
- “The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”
Tester asked Thompson about the dozen individuals charged with prostitution: If they were trafficking victims, why were they being punished?
Thompson assured him that “these wouldn’t have been people who were trafficked.” They were, he said, “criminal prostitution folks.”
“I got you,” Tester replied. “So, what does that have to do with trafficking?”
Thompson responded that the prostitution arrests were carried out in the course of the trafficking investigations.
Tester said he’d like to know what happened to the traffickers. “And I’d like to know if we’re throwing people who were trafficked in jail,” he said. “Because that seems pretty harsh.”
Thompson promised to get him those answers.
Front Page Confidential contacted Tester’s office to find out whether Thompson followed up. Tester’s press secretary, Dave Kuntz, said the senator hadn’t received anything yet. “We will continue to push the agency until we get this information,” Kuntz added.
Front Page Confidential also inquired with the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, about Thompson’s testimony. The agency has not responded.
The Committee on Indian Affairs issued a press release summarizing the hearing. The release makes no mention of either SESTA or Backpage, but it does discuss two bills to assist Indian country: One would require the DOJ to collect statistics on American Indian victims of human trafficking; the other would offer grants to tribes to fight trafficking.
The press release quotes Sen. John Hoeven, the North Dakota Republican who chairs the committee, as saying, “The disturbing conclusion from these reports indicates that it is really tough to confirm the extent of the trafficking problem in Indian Country without more data and better metrics. Without knowing the extent of the problem, it is difficult to adequately address it.”
Click the link below to read the General Accounting Office’s most recent report on human trafficking in Indian country:
“Human Trafficking: Investigations in Indian Country or Involving Native Americans and Actions Needed to Better Report on Victims Served”
Click the link below to watch video of the Senate hearing: