California first lady, kicking off conference, says smuggling problem is 'epidemic.'
By Bob Keefe
WEST COAST BUREAU
Friday, August 15, 2008
LOS ANGELES — Calling it modern-day slavery, governors of Texas and other states on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border agreed Thursday to collaborate on ways to combat the growing problem of human smuggling.
"We are in the midst of a human trafficking epidemic," said California first lady Maria Shriver, who led a forum on the topic to start the 26th annual meeting of U.S. and Mexican border governors.
According to the U.S. State Department, an estimated 600,000 to 820,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. They are often exploited for sex or for cheap labor, experts say.
In Texas alone, border officials intercepted more than 400 tractor-trailers containing more than 1,800 undocumented immigrants between September and April, according to figures from Gov. Rick Perry's office. At least some were victims of human trafficking.
Governors also are expected to hammer out an agreement designed to let law enforcement officers from the states work together on ways to crack down on illegal weapons trafficking.
Perry, one of four U.S. governors at this week's conference, announced a program in June with the U.S. Border Patrol and other authorities designed to reduce human trafficking and drug and weapons trade on the border.
The program, dubbed "Texas Hold 'Em," includes a toll-free phone line for tipsters and rewards for information leading to felony smuggling convictions. It also made it easier for authorities to revoke the driver's licenses of commercial truckers convicted of smuggling.
Perry's office is working to expand the program to include truck drivers licensed by other states, to Perry spokeswoman Krista Piferrer said.
"What we're hoping to achieve is zero commercial truck drivers participating in illegal activities," Piferrer said.
The forum on human trafficking kicked off the widely watched conference, which includes governors from 10 U.S. and Mexican states as well as representatives from the United Nations and federal officials.
Along with border security, the governors are discussing economic and environmental issues and ways to build new "green economies" on both sides of the border.