The latest in a line of legislative acts targeting human traffickers in Washington state was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday. The law elevates the crime of coercing a person into involuntary servitude to a felony from a gross misdemeanor.
The measure specifically targets those who coerce immigrants - those in the country legally or not - into working by threatening to turn the person in to immigration or law enforcement authorities.
Senate Bill 6339 was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Karen Fraser of Thurston County, who has been among lawmakers of both parties to back past legislative efforts to counter traffickers. Co-sponsors included Republican Sen. Pam Roach of Auburn.
Fraser said her bill stiffens penalties for using immigration documents to coerce or force someone into labor. “Apparently this is a very common practice with forced labor,’’ Fraser said.
"Threatening immigration status is a very powerful weapon on helpless people. So this is a good idea,'' Inslee said after signing SB 6336. He said he'd met with faith groups before session and mentioned to advocates he thought the state should make it illegal to use threats involving immigration papers to coerce someone into work or slavery.
"They took that ball and ran with it,'' Inslee said.
The bill takes effect on June 11, 90 days after the end of the legislative session.
Former state House member Velma Veloria, who works with Faith Action Network, said the law protects legal immigrants who become victims of coercion and sometimes have pay withheld.
Veloria said the faith organization has heard of abuses from workers in nursing homes, construction and from sex workers. But she said there are no good statistics on how often this happens and the crime often goes unreported.
"They are here legally but somebody withholds their passport so they won't escape. It's worse than having your identity stolen, because you can't move," Veloria said.
No compensation to the victim is required under the statute. A legislative analysis of the law says it is not coercion to report to police or immigration authorities that someone is in the U.S. in violation of immigration laws.