The House Friday overwhelmingly approved legislation aimed at protecting women from domestic violence and cracking down on international traffickers who force thousands of women into lives of prostitution and sexual slavery.
The measure, passed by a vote of 371-1, renewed the 1994 Violence against Women Act and combined it with a bill to intensify anti-trafficking efforts against those who force up to 50,000 immigrant women each year into the sex industry in the United States alone.
"The two major thrusts of this legislation (are) to protect women and children from abuse and exploitation here in the United States and to safeguard women and children who are trafficked to the United States and forced into prostitution," said Republican Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey, one of the bill's sponsors.
House and Senate versions of the measure, called the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, were reconciled in a conference before passage by the House. The Senate is expected to give final approval to the legislation next week.
"This is one of the most important pieces of human rights legislation to pass Congress in recent years," said Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota who, with Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, spearheaded the sex trafficking law.
"This is a model for other governments around the world," Wellstone said.
The lone no vote was cast by South Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Sanford.
Trafficking in humansoften women and young girls from impoverished or chaotic countriesis estimated to snare between 1 million and 2 million victims each year. They are lured to wealthy countries by promises of decent jobs, but are forced into brothels, sweatshops or similar situations.
In a statement, Secretary of State Madeline Albright said the bill would help fight human trafficking, an issue she described as a "top priority of this administration."
"I have elevated this issue to the top of our agenda," Albright said.
The bill increases penalties for trafficking, provides assistance for victims and includes changes in immigration rules to end the rapid deportation of victims. Under the legislation victims are allowed to remain in the United States, at least long enough for the cases to be prosecuted.
Traffickers rarely end up in court. A CIA report described by the New York Times in April said that over the last two years, while up to 100,000 victims poured into the United States, where they were held in bondage, federal officials estimated that the government prosecuted cases involving no more than 250 victims.
The law also requires the State Department to report on trafficking in its annual human rights reports on each country, calls for an interagency task force on tracking, and allows the president to launch programs like miro-credit loan initiatives to discourage women from entering trafficking.
It stipulates that henceforth, "It is the policy of the United States not to provide non-humanitarian, non-trade-related foreign assistance to any government that does not comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; and is not making significant efforts to bring itself."
The new measure also renews the Violence Against Women Act, which gives law enforcement agencies tools to act against wife beaters and men who batter or abuse their children. The law provides millions of dollars to aid the estimated 900,000 women who suffer violence at the hands of their partners each year.
The bill authorizes $3.3 billion more to continue the work over the next five years.
President Clinton is likely to sign the measure.
Also included in the bill was a measure to make it easier for victims of acts of terror to collect damage claims from the assets of foreign nations frozen in the United States.
Under the 1996 Anti-Terrorism law U.S. courts have awarded victims' families and former hostages multimillion-dollar judgments against nations that sponsor terror. But the Clinton administration has blocked the payment of damages from the foreign assets of countries like Cuba and Iran frozen by the U.S. Treasury.