Washington D.C., Jul 13, 2017 / 04:40 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- An upgrade to a key anti-trafficking bill passed the U.S. House on Wednesday, and has been praised by one U.S. bishop as “an important step” in the fight to abolish modern-day slavery.

Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, chair of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee, called H.R. 2200 “an important step Congress can take to help prevent human trafficking and protect victims as it provides important service provisions that will aid victims.”

The Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention, Protection and Reauthorization Act of 2017 makes upgrades to existing legislation, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. The new bill is named after Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave in 1818 but escaped to freedom and who spent his time thereafter fighting to abolish the institution of slavery in the U.S.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chair of the House global human rights subcommittee, is the author of the act, with Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), ranking member on the committee, being the bill’s lead sponsor.

The proposed legislation would increase funding for existing anti-trafficking programs in the U.S. and abroad by over $500 million.

Grants will be given to educational programs for students and teachers on how to detect and avoid the trafficking of young people for work or sex. Also, the U.S. government is encouraged under the bill to have employees stay at hotels that have taken concrete steps to prevent trafficking on their property.

Additionally, funding will go to victim assistance like temporary housing, legal advocacy, and mental health treatment.

Funding for victims is important, Rep. Bass insisted, because trafficking victims can be quite young and helpless.

“The majority of underage trafficking victims are girls in foster care, where the average age of a girl entering into sex trafficking is 12 years old,” Bass noted. “One of the major reasons girls cannot escape is because they do not have housing.”

Human trafficking is a global problem that claims almost 21 million victims worldwide, according to the International Labor Organization. Many victims are women and children. Trafficking includes many forms of forced labor and sex slavery.

Fewer than 10,000 trafficking convictions per year are made, according to the State Department. Trafficking spans many industries, such as Indonesians working in slave-like conditions on fishing boats, debt bondage in Afghanistan, and forced prostitution in the U.S.

The International Labor Organization estimates that $150 billion a year in profits in the U.S. alone is the result of forced labor.

“Human trafficking is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the world,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) said at a Wednesday press conference at the U.S. Capitol. Trafficking is a “national problem,” he added, and requires “a national effort to solve it.”

One chief aim of the the original Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, authored by Rep. Smith, was to introduce an annual report by the State Department where countries would be ranked in a tier system based on how they met minimum standards set by the law for fighting and preventing trafficking.

The State Department had legal tools at its disposal, like sanctions, to push the countries with the worst records on trafficking to improve.

The Trafficking In Persons report is also updated under the new bill. Countries on the Tier 2 Watch List, the level just below the worst offenders on Tier 3, may only stay on the watch list for a limited period of time before falling to the Tier 3 level if they do not improve their record on fighting trafficking.

Also, countries using child soldiers may not partner with the U.S. military until they discontinue the practice, under the new bill.

Bishop Vasquez stated his support for the proposed legislation on Tuesday, and advocated for citizens to contact their member of Congress to support it as well.

“The Catholic Church has a longstanding role in the prevention of human trafficking and the rehabilitation of victims,” he explained in a letter to members of Congress.

The bill’s actions to support victims of trafficking are especially important, he said, as well as those actions which aim to cut trafficking from economic supply chains.  

“As Pope Francis has stated: ‘[Trafficking] victims are from all walks of life, but are most frequently among the poorest and most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters,’” he said. “I believe that these exploited individuals deserve the care and support of our communities and our government and that such support will help them heal and become survivors.”

Members of Congress reiterated on Wednesday the importance of the bill funding prevention efforts, helping victims, and strengthening prosecution of traffickers. In particular, they insisted, Americans must be aware that trafficking occurs in their own communities and on easily-accessible websites.

“If we call ourselves anti-trafficking advocates, we cannot give a free pass to the websites that sell our women and children,” Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) said on Wednesday, pointing to a Washington Post story explaining how the site Backpage.com is “creating and soliciting illegal sex ads.”

Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) noted how authorities in her home state, acting undercover, posted a sex ad which “in less than two days” garnered “over 100 responses to purchase these girls for sex.”

“Every human life is of infinite value,” Rep. Smith said on Wednesday. “We have a duty to protect the weakest and most vulnerable from harm.”