Originally published in the Star-Telegram on Aug. 4, 2017

Human trafficking isn't something we think of as being a major problem in America, but the truth is that adults and youth are being forced into prostitution and unpaid labor in our own backyard at an alarming rate. 

No community in America is immune to the scourge of human trafficking, including our corner of North Texas.

The trafficking of people for the purpose of enriching the traffickers — whether the victims are brought across our borders illegally or recruited from our most vulnerable neighbors — is the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world.

More than 20 million victims are affected worldwide, according to the International Labor Organization. The majority of those victims are forced to work for little or no wages, many of them in the commercial sex trade. More than a quarter are children.

Every night across America, human traffickers prey on lost boys and girls, selling them through force or coercion for sex in big cities and small towns from coast to coast. Human trafficking has become a major human rights crisis that is overwhelming the limited resources of our local law enforcement agencies and destroying the lives of a generation of victims.

Incidents of human trafficking in the United States saw a 35.7 percent increase in 2016, compared with the previous year, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which received 7,572 reports of trafficking last year.

As a senior member of the House State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee and co-chair of the House Human Trafficking Caucus, I have met with the victims of trafficking and witnessed the emotional devastation caused by being forced into slavery.

The trafficking of men, women and children for the purpose of exploitation is a horrendous crime that has no place in our society. The average age of girls who are sold into prostitution for the first time is between 8 and 13, and hundreds of teenagers are trafficked every night in the Fort Worth-Dallas area.

Texas is among of the top two states in the nation, after California, for reported incidents of human trafficking, and the Dallas-Fort Worth area has the second-highest number of cases in the state after Houston.

A recent University of Texas report estimates there are more than 300,000 victims of human trafficking across the state, including almost 79,000 children forced into the commercial sex trade by traffickers and nearly 234,000 adult victims of labor trafficking.

North Texas is a favorite target for modern-day slavers because of its relative proximity to the border and the convenient access to major highways and airports that make transporting victims to the rest of the country easy.

The increasing number of human trafficking cases in Tarrant County — 26 cases between January and April alone, compared with 62 in all of 2016 — has spurred a grassroots effort led by former and current elected officials and civic leaders to better protect victims and more aggressively prosecutes those who prey on them.

Part of that initiative is the Fort Worth Police Department’s Tarrant County Five-Stones Human Trafficking Taskforce, which includes federal and local law enforcement agencies working in partnership with community organizations, nonprofits, concerned citizens, and elected officials from all levels of government to end human trafficking.

Another worthy effort in the fight to end human trafficking is the Blue Lightning Initiative, a partnership between U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the aviation industry, including Fort Worth-based American Airlines. The initiative trains flight crews and other airline personnel to identify and report possible instances of human trafficking.

Traffickers often use fear and coercion to manipulate youth into engaging in the commercial sex trade and then keep most, if not all, of the profits. The Internet plays a significant role in sex trafficking and is often the way traffickers first find and connect with victims.

In response to this growing epidemic, the House has this year passed 16 anti-trafficking and exploitation bills to provide greater support for victims and make available additional resources for law enforcement to track down and punish traffickers.

No single piece of legislation will end human trafficking, but every bill brings greater attention to this problem hiding in plain sight and further empowers victims to regain control of their lives.

Together with the efforts of community leaders and organizations in and around Fort Worth, we can curb the horrific damage caused by human trafficking and child exploitation.

We can all play a part in combating human trafficking and protecting the most vulnerable among us. I encourage you to learn the warning signs that may indicate that someone is being trafficked, volunteer to do victim outreach, and teach your children to identify dangerous situations and how to avoid potential traffickers.

If you suspect someone is being trafficked, please call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888.

Kay Granger serves North Texas in the U.S. House.