By Christine Murray
MEXICO CITY, Jan 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday vowed to boost measures to fight human trafficking, but several anti-trafficking groups skipped the White House event amid criticism that his immigration policies enable modern slavery.
In next year's government budget will be a request for $70 million to fight trafficking, and an anti-trafficking official will be named to the White House domestic policy council, the president said an speech and an executive order.
An estimated 400,000 people are believed trapped in modern slavery in the United States, from sex work to forced labor, according to the Walk Free Foundation, a human rights group.
Globally, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates 16 million people are trapped in forced labor and human trafficking.
"Human trafficking is a problem everywhere, worldwide," Trump said at an anti-trafficking summit at the White House. "Read what you want, say what you want, but nobody has been doing more than what we've been doing on human trafficking."
The White House summit, marking 20 years since enactment of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act that boosted enforcement and prosecution efforts, was led by his daughter and advisor Ivanka Trump, who has made human trafficking one of her signature issues.
But it exposed differences between the administration and some anti-trafficking advocates, as several prominent groups that were invited chose not to attend.
The decision by some to stay away was first reported by the Washington Post, which said at least eight groups declined.
"The policies of this administration have been incredibly harmful to trafficking survivors, putting them at higher risk of abuse and exploitation and making it harder for them to escape the situations that they're trapped in," said Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network USA, a trafficking survivors advocacy group.
Bruggeman, who opted not to attend, said the administration's policy to limit the number of asylum seekers allowed to cross the border and other immigration policies mean people fleeing trafficking are not getting help they need.
She also said long wait times and rule changes for T-visas, designated for victims of crimes and their families, have discouraged some survivors from stepping forward.
The U.S. government has overseen a rising backlog in applications for T-visas, and applicants may be forced to wait more than two years for a response, according to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Under a Trump administration policy change, those denied a T-visa who are in the United States illegally face a hearing that begins their deportation process.
USCIS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"There's a dichotomy. You have the Trump administration that's talking about wanting to combat trafficking, and then the other half of his policies perpetuate it," said Jennifer Clark, a trafficking expert and professor at South Texas College.
The anti-trafficking group Polaris, which runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, also declined its invitation.
"At this highly politicized moment in our nation, we were concerned that our attendance at this Summit would be misconstrued as taking a political side, and so we chose not to attend," it said in a statement.
But Samantha Vardaman, vice president of Shared Hope International, a Christian anti sex-trafficking group, who attended the event said the effort was bipartisan.
"The administration is continuing to put a strong priority on fighting trafficking and providing services for victims," she said.
Shared Hope focuses its work on sex trafficking of children who are citizens or lawful permanent residents, she said.
It was unclear how much of the $70 million request was new funding for 2021. The White House did not respond to a request for details or comment.
(Reporting by Christine Murray; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)