During a press conference Wednesday, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta dismissed calls for his resignation and defended the 2008 plea deal given to the billionaire serial child sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein while he was the U.S. attorney in Florida. Acosta has also come under fire for his proposal to cut funding for victims of sex trafficking. His 2020 budget proposal for the Department of Labor includes an almost 80% decrease in funds for the Bureau of International Labor Affairs, the office tasked with fighting child sex trafficking. Critics of the proposal argue it would effectively dismantle many programs aimed at preventing child sex trafficking and put large numbers of children at risk. We speak with Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta is rejecting calls to resign and is defending his role in a 2008 plea deal given to the wealthy serial child sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein. At the time, Acosta was a U.S. prosecutor in Florida. The Miami Herald has described the plea deal as, quote, “one of the most lenient deals for a serial child sex offender in history.”
AMY GOODMAN: Acosta has also come under fire for his proposal to cut funding for victims of sex trafficking. His 2020 budget proposal for the Department of Labor includes an almost 80% decrease in funds for International Labor Affairs Bureau. Acosta was questioned when he held an almost hour news conference to justify the extremely lenient deal he made with Epstein back in 2008 when he was the U.S. attorney in Florida. But this is what he said when questioned about the budget around sex trafficking.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: As labor secretary, you’ve tried repeatedly to cut a program that deals with human trafficking in the Labor Department by up to 80%, going before Congress advocating for that. Why should people trust you to focus on human trafficking and protect victims, if you’ve done that? And I’d like a follow-up question.
LABOR SECRETARY ALEXANDER ACOSTA: So, you’re referring to grants that go to foreign countries, for foreign country labor-related work. As part of the budget every year, those grants have been removed, as have other grants for foreign countries. And let me just add, as part of the budget every year, those grants are put right back in by Congress. This is what happens in Washington. And I fully suspect that those grants will remain in this year.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Alex Acosta’s record, we’re joined now by Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.
We’re not as much talking right now about the case of Jeffrey Epstein, which we talked about over the last few days, but this issue of his cutting of the budget. Can you explain what this means?
TAINA BIEN-AIMÉ: So, the Department of Labor has a bureau called ILAB, which is the International Labor Affairs Bureau. And their primary responsibility is to combat forced labor, child trafficking, both labor and sex trafficking, and human trafficking in general. So, what Secretary Acosta is saying, that it goes primarily—that this money goes primarily to international programs, is correct, but it also goes to domestic programs.
So, if he slashes—so, he has a budget of $68 million. What he is proposing is for the bureau, ILAB, to be reduced by 80%, to $18 million. Congress will fight him on that; the Appropriations Committee will fight him on that. But what it means is that we are faced with an administration that wants to reduce its efforts to this very complex human rights violation called human trafficking. So, it’s not just jeopardizing the work that we are doing to combat child sex trafficking, but also child labor trafficking. So, many of—the State Department also works on human trafficking and also provides services and programs to combat it, but they rely on DOL, on the Department of Labor, and specifically for child labor trafficking.
So, for instance, cocoa production, right? So, there are three major U.S. companies—Hershey, Mars and Nestlé—that cannot even—they committed to ensuring to the consumers that no child labor trafficking is involved in the production of cocoa. What will happen to those commitments? Right? We don’t even know whether they are fulfilling their commitments to ensure that whenever you buy a bag of M&M’s or Skittles, that that doesn’t involve child trafficking.
AMY GOODMAN: Why is child sex trafficking, and the whole issue of sex trafficking, in the Department of Labor? I mean, it’s very interesting. You have Acosta, who makes this extremely lenient deal with a child sex rapist—right?—with Jeffrey Epstein, where he goes to jail for something like 11 months, but every day he can go out. His chauffeur picks him up to go to work. And this was in Florida. And, of course, he works for President Trump, who has been accused of sexually assaulting at least 17 women. But why are we—why is this in the Department of Labor?
TAINA BIEN-AIMÉ: Well, that is that—well, sex trafficking is dealt with in many agencies across the U.S. government, right? So, Labor was ILAB, which is, again, the bureau that specifically looks at human trafficking, which includes—as we know, human trafficking has many forms of exploitation. You have trafficking for labor, trafficking for sex, organ removal, situations of slavery and servitude. Right? So, that is their mandate, to ensure that the U.S. develops programs that are well funded to combat it, to prevent it, to suppress it.
AMY GOODMAN: And if it was cut by 80%, would it devastate the monitoring of and stopping of human trafficking?
TAINA BIEN-AIMÉ: It would gut the program. It would gut the program.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, but do Part 2 and post it online at democracynow.org. Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.