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Tucson victim of human trafficking shares story, message in Capitol

Beth Jacobs, founder of Willow Way, which works to help victims of human trafficking, told a panel in Washington that part of the problem is laws that makle little distinction between victims of trafficking – as she was – and the traffickers that prey on them. (Cronkite News Service photo by Colton Gavin)

Beth Jacobs, founder of Willow Way, which works to help victims of human trafficking, told a panel in Washington that part of the problem is laws that makle little distinction between victims of trafficking – as she was – and the traffickers that prey on them. (Cronkite News Service photo by Colton Gavin)

WASHINGTON – For those who think slavery exists only in history books, Tucson resident Beth Jacobs has a message.

“Trafficking does not discriminate. It will find you at home, at church, or on the Internet,” said Jacobs, who said she was forced into prostitution as a teenager. “It can find you anywhere.”

Jacobs was in Washington on Monday to share her story as part of a panel of victims and advocates who discussed strategies for ending human trafficking. The event was organized by the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, whose executive director, Melysa Sperber, called human trafficking a $32 billion illegal industry, second only to the drug trade.

Jacobs believes that a large part of the problem is laws that do not adequately differentiate between victims of human trafficking and the traffickers who lure them in. She cited her own case: Charged with prostitution as a teen, she will carry that record for 99 years, she said.

“I won’t live to be 116, so that law needs to change,” Jacobs said Monday.

But for decades, she has had to deal with the charges. Every time she applies for a job, her prospective employers learn of her past. Rather than recognizing that she is a victim, Jacobs said she is seen as a criminal.

“I feel like I have been living in an alternate reality!” Jacobs said.

She asked those at Monday’s event in the Capitol Visitors Center to imagine a woman being told she had to rob a convenience store or she would be killed. Jacobs then asked if anyone would dare convict that woman for committing that crime against her will.

But that was the situation with her prostitution charges, she said.

Jacobs has written that she ran away from home at age 16 and was later invited to a party by a man she met. She fell asleep on the ride to the party, and when she woke up, the man told her that he was a pimp and he demanded that she “trick” to pay for the gas. When she refused, he pulled a gun on her and demanded she do as he said or be killed.

So began a nearly six-year ordeal of sex trafficking, lying about her age and fearing for her life before she finally escaped. But she has yet to escape the criminal charges that came from those years.

Since then, Jacobs has founded an organization called Willow Way in Tucson to help victims of sex trafficking. She continues to speak out and advocate for changing the law to distinguish between trafficking victims and traffickers.

Earlier this month, she stood with Cindy McCain, the chairwoman of Gov. Jan Brewer’s Task Force on Human Trafficking, to unveil a new billboard campaign aimed at raising awareness of the issue.

Jacobs urged parents to talk about the issue with their children.

“You have to protect them because the pimps aren’t going to protect them,” she said.

One problem is that authorities do not always recognize the signs of human trafficking. Sperber said some progress is being made with the Strengthening the Child Welfare Response to Human Trafficking Act of 2013, a bipartisan House bill that calls for federal funding to help child welfare and court employees recognize the signs of trafficking and establishes a protocol for dealing with the situation.

“We have to come together as a community and nation to end this,” Jacobs said. “It doesn’t matter who you are. It affects us all, Democrat or Republican.”

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