WDAY: The News Leader

Published May 10, 2014, 02:06 PM

Heitkamp says North Dakota faces challenge in dealing with human trafficking

FARGO – Sex and human trafficking is occurring across North Dakota.

By: Forum News Service, INFORUM, WDAY

FARGO – Sex and human trafficking is occurring across North Dakota.

It’s being fueled by a pipeline running from Mexico straight up Interstate 29, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., told those attending a Fargo training session Friday on identifying and combating the issue.

“People on the ground that do this every day, whether it’s law enforcement or service providers, know it’s a growing problem,” Heitkamp said.

“We need a local response. We need to build resiliency for young women who are very susceptible to being groomed into this lifestyle,” she said. “Empowering victims to speak out is hugely important.”

Stiffer laws and punishment, more law enforcement, increased prosecution, heightened awareness, and training and funding to help trafficking victims are also needed, Heitkamp said.

“You sell a kilo of drugs in our country, you go to jail. You sell a person, that ain’t true,” she said.

Human trafficking is a $32 billion global industry linked to organized crime.

The fact that organized crime is alive and well in North Dakota should be a big concern, said Fargo Deputy Police Chief Pat Claus.

Fighting trafficking locally will require a multifaceted response.

“It cannot just be law enforcement. It has to be a community-based initiative,” Claus said. “It’s going to take everyone working together to make sure the problem doesn’t expand and hopefully, through combined efforts, actually reduces that issue.”

Heitkamp is one of several bipartisan authors of the Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act, federal legislation to crack down on sex trafficking.

“It’s a huge priority,” she said. “We absolutely cannot let people be exploited this way.”

Since the recent oil boom, North Dakota has become home to traveling workers who have a lot of cash and time on their hands, she said.

“This has become a major magnet for organized traffickers and organized crime to come and sell not only women but also sell drugs,” Heitkamp said.

“We obviously have a challenge in North Dakota.”