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June 29, 2017

Juneteenth: A Day for Remembrance and Awareness

Every year on June 19—or Juneteenth, as it is often called—we commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. While the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on New Year’s Day of 1863, it took more than two years for the news to travel to Texas. Finally, on June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Texas, announcing the abolition of slavery in the last Confederate stronghold.

Historically, Juneteenth was a day that the freed people of Texas celebrated with family and food as a way of measuring progress and instilling the values of racial uplift and freedom in the generations to follow. Today, however, Juneteenth is a day not only to celebrate freedom but also to contemplate, educate, and discuss the improvements that our society still needs to make.

The institution of slavery is inextricably rooted in the foundation of the United States. Likewise, abolitionism remains a fundamental component of our country’s identity—and it’s very much needed today. Juneteenth is a time to remember that while the United States may have seen the end of legal slavery more than 150 years ago, the end of slavery altogether has yet to pass. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are an estimated 20.9 million people living in slavery worldwide today. Many of these victims are in the United States.

Horrific though this number is, global and U.S. anti-slavery efforts offer some hope. A 2015 amendment to the Tariff Act of 1930 explicitly prohibits the import of any goods produced by forced labor into the United States. In 2016, the End Modern Slavery Initiative passed, providing grants for programs and projects that aim to combat slavery in key areas across the globe.

Recently, lawmakers have drafted new legislation to combat slavery in the United States. In the Senate, Senators Cornyn (R-TX), Klobuchar (D-MN), Grassley (R-IA), and Feinstein (D-CA) have introduced the Abolish Human Trafficking Act (AHTA) of 2017. In the House of Representatives, Chris Smith (R-NJ) has introduced the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Act of 2017. If signed into law, both of these bills would reauthorize and update the hallmark piece of federal human trafficking legislation, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).

Juneteenth is a time to recommit to the work that still remains. Passing legislation to combat human trafficking here at home and across the globe is an important step that the United States can take now; discouraging trafficking worldwide by rejecting all products created by forced labor is another.

In the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln declared “all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free.” The United States should consider President Lincoln’s words, and use its position in the world to protect vulnerable individuals and bring their perpetrators to justice.