Prosecutors will pursue the captors using a law Congress passed last year that allows sentences of up to life in prison for human trafficking and provides restitution to victims, Ashcroft said.
"Human trafficking victims often are too young, too frightened, too trapped in their circumstances to speak for themselves," Ashcroft said. "We hope to be the victim's voice, to lessen the suffering, to prosecute those who commit these crimes to the fullest extent of the law."
A report released by the State Department last week found that 23 countries are not doing enough to combat international trafficking in humans. An estimated 700,000 people are taken across borders to work annually. The report said America is a transit and destination point, with up to 50,000 people brought into the country each year.
Ashcroft noted recent cases involving farm workers in Florida, factory employees in American Samoa and strip club dancers in Alaska. He said if victims from other countries cooperate, under the law, they may be allowed to stay in America.
A new plan to curtail the problem, by the departments of Justice and State, is part of the legislation approved in October.
"It is simply the right thing to do for the broken lives who have been forced into slavery-like conditions," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said many young women are lured with a promise of legitimate jobs.
"When they get here, their passport is pulled and then they realize the nightmare that they're in for," he said.
The biggest problem is in American cities, he said, and before the law passed, convictions carried prison sentences of less than two years.
The Justice Department has prosecuted 16 trafficking cases since 1999. A department official said problem areas are in Southern states like Florida, parts of the East Coast and California.
Ashcroft said he will set up an outreach program to find victims with the help of shelters and victims' rights groups. Federal prosecutors have been provided information about the new law. The FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service have also been directed to increase investigations, he said.
Victims will be given access to translators and will be eligible for housing, medical care and law officer protection pending prosecutions.
By Gina Holland
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