Story Highlights• Attorney general vows to keep the issue a top priority for federal agencies
• Justice Department creates a unit designed to pursue human trafficking cases
• Authorities cite a sixfold increase in the number of cases filed over five years
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States has launched hundreds of new investigations to combat human trafficking for prostitution and labor exploitation inside its borders, U.S. authorities have announced.
Calling human trafficking "the equivalent of modern day slavery," U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales vowed on Wednesday to keep the issue a top priority for federal law enforcement agencies.
The Justice Department also has created a unit designed to pursue human trafficking cases, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Wan Kim.
Justice authorities said it would be the first time the Civil Rights Division would have a team of lawyers working exclusively on human trafficking cases.
The unit initially will have four attorneys experienced in prosecuting human trafficking cases, Kim said.
Justice Department and FBI officials said they are using more attorneys and investigators to find and prosecute international human trafficking rings, which lure primarily young women from Asian, Eastern European and Latin American countries to the United States with false promises of jobs and husbands.
"This is a perversion of the American dream. The American dream is used as a lure to attract victims," Assistant U.S. Attorney Kim said.
Kim said the degree of coercion may vary, "But nobody signs up for involuntary servitude."
A senior U.S. Justice Department official estimated about 15,000 victims of human trafficking arrive in the United States annually, some as young as 9 years old, destined for jobs in brothels, as unpaid domestic servants, or in other jobs as virtual slaves.
The victims represent a source of continuing income for the rings that provide them, making human trafficking more attractive than drug smuggling to some criminal syndicates, authorities said.
The FBI said it currently has 212 ongoing human trafficking investigations, and the Justice Department said it had initiated 60 investigations in the past four months.
Authorities cite a sixfold increase in the number of cases filed compared with the level of five years ago, and say that reflects both a growing problem and an increased federal law enforcement emphasis. Last year, federal prosecutors charged 222 defendants and won 98 convictions.
Kim disputed critics who have contended human trafficking has been pursued at the expense of traditional civil rights cases.
"Most of the victims are women and minorities. I'd quarrel with anyone who says this is not a core civil rights mission," Kim said. "And we've not fallen short on pursuing traditional civil rights cases."
CNN's Terry Frieden contributed to this report.
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