Of all of the shared values that Americans hold so dearly, none is perhaps more central to our national identity than the importance we place on individual freedom and the dignity that this notion connotes to our fellow human beings. On July 4, 1776, the continental congress representing thirteen colonies announced the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, in effect freeing our founding fathers of the tyranny they had endured at the hands of the British Empire. Of particular note was a significant passage that is seen today as an enduring legacy of the American experiment in democracy and statement of human rights:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The sentiments and values that these words hold would no doubt influence the framing and adoption of the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the laws of the several states that would bring forth greater equality, freedom, and human dignity to all individuals.
These initial acts of goodness were of course marred by our country’s endorsement of the mid-Atlantic slave trade which by its very nature was contradictory to the words enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and later, our Constitution. Nevertheless, born out of these words was a promise and an aspiration of a people to move closer to being a more perfect union. And so it was through President Lincoln that the Emancipation Proclamation and Civil War led to the eventual passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments, ending government-sanctioned slavery and putting our nation on a new course committed to human rights and human dignity.
It has never been an easy road. Indeed throughout the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries we have struggled as a people to embrace full equality and dignity for all human beings, and as the fight against human trafficking has shown us, we have continued to struggle to end slavery. But one commonality has emerged that connects us to our founding fathers and those original abolitionists who fought against slavery at the inception of our country: hope. Hope that the best of our humanity is stronger than the worst of it. Hope that through hard work, struggle, and sacrifice we will build a world without slavery. Hope that through passage of new laws we will create the legal framework to end human trafficking.
From the adoption of the 13th Amendment that outlawed slavery in 1865 to the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, advocates and lawmakers have fought to end the exploitation of people through the legislative process for centuries. This year is no different. In 2012, Polaris Project, along with our partner organizations and grassroots supporters have helped secure the passage of 20 new laws that criminalize human trafficking, provide law enforcement and prosecutors with tools to target traffickers, and give victims the resources they need to recover and begin rebuilding their lives.
Strong criminal laws were enacted this year in West Virginia, South Carolina, Alaska, Wisconsin, and Indiana — some of which have already led to the successful prosecution of traffickers. Greater victim protections were also passed ensuring that survivors have the tools they need to rebuild their lives in states like Vermont, Hawaii, and Colorado. We have also worked on victim outreach and community awareness by passing laws that require training and posting of the NHTRC hotline in states like Virginia, Maryland, Alabama, and Louisiana.
All across the nation a community of advocates silently work towards the abolition of modern-day slavery and look to the future with hope that one day everyone in the U.S. will celebrate the independence of our nation knowing that all men, women, and children enjoy the freedom our forefathers fought and died to protect – free from exploitation, free from slavery.