August 17, 2023

The National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTH), a well known, and highly distributed phone number. We see the posters donning the number with assurance of help to victims. But, how is it adhered everywhere? Did they partner with every local business, federal agency, and NGO to distribute the posters? No, the distribution of the NHTH number starts with the endorsement by a very important and foundational piece of legislation. Although, the relationship with the federal agencies was long fostered before the existence of the Hotline.

In 1999, Representative Chris Smith introduced legislation that would be considered the first of its kind. It legally defined trafficking and opened doors to the preventative funding we see today. Named Victims of Trafficking and Violence Act (TVPA), this bill passed in October of 2000, after a year of amending and voting. As Chris Smith recalls in an interview with “colleague” Katherine Chon,

“Much of the TVPA was opposed by the administration at that time….Bill Clinton. And then he signed it. So, all’s well that ends well.”

Chris Smith

Over the years the bill had been re-authorized and amended a total of 8 times and became known more popularly as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).

When it was first passed in 2000, it authorized the then President (Bill Clinton) to establish a hand-picked Interagency Task Force that would be chaired by the Secretary of State. It also authorized the Secretary of State to establish, within the Department of State, an Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking, that would then provide assistance to the Task Force. It created new crimes regarding trafficking, that included the option of restitution to victims, and gave non-citizen trafficking victims an opportunity to gain citizenship.

With the passing of this bill came the opportunity to amend and expand trafficking legislation. In 2003, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) was signed into law. A bill that authorized more than $200 million over two years to combat human trafficking by: creating grants, programs, and operations foreign and domestic.

2003 tax form
2004 tax form

The 2003 legislation seemed to be the genesis of the partnership between the federal government and Polaris Project. Prior to 2003, the organization had not received any government funding. The TVPRA’s authorized $200 Million gave Polaris the opportunity to receive $52,863 in government grants in 2003, their second year in operation. In 2004, that amount tripled and then some, with a total of $167,389 in government funding. This was likely the authorized funding that was then rewarded to Polaris Project to establish Polaris Project Japan (rebranded as Lighthouse and then dissolved in 2022).

Polaris “Ten Years of Impact” report

With a new vested interest in the TVPA, we begin to see lobbying expenditures within the Polaris 2005 tax forms. That year, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2005 was passed, and while the authorized funding was less than 200 million, the government grant total that year saw an 88% increase. Over the next 14 years Polaris spends a total of $91,242 in direct lobbying to influence the legislative body. Below is a table comparison of government grant amounts and total lobbying expenditures over the years.

YearsGovernment GrantLobbying Expenditures
*Total lobbying expenditure figures are a total of grassroots lobbying and direct lobbying

In the 2007 grant amount, we see an additional 83% increase in funding when compared to 2006. This is due to Polaris being selected to operate the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Another sharp increase comes in 2010 when Polaris is selected to develop online training for all military and civilian personnel on how to identify and respond to human trafficking, by the Department of Defense. It is also important to note that every year since its creation, Polaris Project has increased executive compensation each year, save 2017.

In 2008, the TVPRA was renewed again with the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. Introduced by Representative Howard L. Berman in December 2008, it was signed into law by President George W. Bush just two weeks later. With Polaris’ own Bradley Myles pictured in the oval office below. The authorized funding for that year was about $102 million to fight human trafficking. That year, Polaris is awarded an 83% increase in government grant funding once again.

When the TVPR bill was resurrected again, it was called the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013. This bill authorized $8 million for fiscal years 2014 through 2017 for the Department of Health and Human services, where Polaris receives annual grant awards for the hotline. For this policy, much like the 2008 reauthorized bill, Polaris worked closely with legislators to influence policy. The Director of Policy at Polaris was quoted in a press release regarding the passed bill saying,

After almost two years of urging action on this bill, we are thrilled to see the House of Representatives support this critical tool that provides vital services to survivors and curtails human trafficking at home and abroad. 

Mary Ellison, Director of Policy, Polaris Project

Within this bill was the legislation that made it possible for the NHTH phone number to be distributed, almost everywhere, in very little time. The legislation made a requirement that the hotline number had to be distributed to all federal government agencies so that they may publicize the number for others that are seeking help. The year the bill was passed Polaris Project spent $9,246 in direct lobbying and the two years prior, a total of $9,918 in direct lobbying. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear the victims are getting the help that they need from the NHTH based on the testimonies within this report. But with this much legislative, and monetary support, one must ask, why not? Calling into question the quality of help, with such robust funding, you would expect the NHTH to be able to help every caller. Almost $30 million in just federal funding over the last 23 years and the Hotline is failing American victims.

The next TVPRA was introduced and passed in 2015. This bill was introduced as the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 by Senator John Cornyn in January of 2015. It was passed by former President Obama on May of 2015. In a Press Release from Polaris Project in February of 2015, the Director of National Programs was quoted saying,

Polaris welcomes the new funding provided in Senator Cornyn’s bill, which would bolster a myriad of services for victims and survivors of human trafficking.

Kelli Sorensen, Director of National Programs, 2015

While the new funding was praised, the amount in government grants received by Polaris decreased by 2 percent that year. But with another $10,545.00 in lobbying done in 2016, another increase in government grants is seen at a 52 percent increase.

In 2015, the $14k in lobbying can be attributed to legislation also mentioned in the Press Release that did not get signed into law.

The Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act sends a clear message to state governments that safe harbor legislation protecting child victims of human trafficking must be included in their response to this crime. Senator Klobuchar’s bill also recognizes the critically important role of the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline by backing it with the force of law.

Kelli Sorenson, Director of National Programs, 2015

The Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act amended the TVPA of 2000 to solidify NHTH’s funding through the HHS.

NATIONAL HUMAN TRAFFICKING HOTLINE.—Beginning in fiscal year 2017 and each fiscal year thereafter, of amounts made available for grants under paragraph (2), the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall make grants for a national communication system to assist victims of severe forms of trafficking in persons in communicating with service providers. The Secretary shall give priority to grant applicants that have experience in providing telephone services to victims of severe forms of trafficking in persons.

S. 166 Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act of 2015, Section 4

Regrettably for Polaris Project, this bill did not proceed introduction. But in 2018, another opportunity to increase funding came with the reauthorization of appropriations in The Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act. Although Polaris spent little to nothing on lobbying in 2017 and beyond, this bill authorized $3.5 million in funding to the National Human Trafficking Hotline from 2018 through 2021.

In 2022 the Human Trafficking Prevention Act of 2022 was introduced and passed to direct the Secretary of Transportation to post “the contact information of the NHTH in the restrooms of each aircraft, airport, over-the-road bus, bus station, passenger train, and passenger railroad station operating within the United States.”

Now in 2023 we have several bills hitting the floor amending the TVPA. One of them called the International Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, amends the TVPRA of 2008 to require the Secretary to provide information on how to contact the NHTH, to foreign mission members, and international organization employees. With this in mind, the U.S. Government has a responsibility to ensure the NHTH is living up to it’s mission and reporting standards. Victims domestically and globally depend on it.