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North Iowans on 'front lines' gather to discuss human trafficking issue in region

MASON CITY | Even though "Taken" — the 2008 movie starring Liam Neeson about a man trying to rescue his kidnapped daughter in Paris — is a good movie, it's not a fully accurate representation of human trafficking, according to Nicole Hamilton-Brahm.

That was one of the many messages Hamilton-Brahm, violent crime program supervisor for Crisis Intervention Services, had for about two dozen North Iowans in a human trafficking awareness seminar Thursday morning.

Hamilton-Braham led the presentation at the North Iowa Events Center with Mason City Police investigator Jason Hugi. It was designed to inform people on the "front lines" of the service industry — hotel receptionists, bartenders and other similar jobs — about how to spot possible human trafficking situations.

Hugi said rural North Iowa might not seem like a spot where human trafficking could happen. He added, however, that the region's location relative to Minneapolis, Des Moines, Chicago and other major cities — coupled with the thoroughfare of Interstate 35 and a number of truck stops and hotels along Highway 122 — make it a target.

He added that kidnapping is not that common of a cause for trafficking, because many cases involve runaway kids and teenagers.

"A lot of our runaways are quite frankly from crappy homes," Hugi said. "And then they get sucked into a situation they can't get out of."

Part of the presentation incorporated a video which highlighted human trafficking victims from metropolitan areas statewide, from Cedar Rapids to Dubuque to the Quad Cities. Several of the victims noted drugs were involved, and that it was hard to escape their situations because they felt they had no support system outside of the trafficking business.

Hugi noted these reasons, along with an increase in trafficking online, has caused the problem to worsen. 

"With the internet, this business has exploded," Hugi told those gathered. "Gangs are getting into this, drug dealers are getting into this, and it's a reusable commodity. These women can be used over and over and over."

He and Hamilton-Brahm urged the audience to be vigilant, especially in more rural areas, which they described as "safe havens" for human traffickers.

This came as somewhat of a surprise to Kristina Torrez, who works at the front desk at the Holiday Inn in Northwood.

Torrez said one of her main goals of attending Thursday's presentation was to inform her colleagues about human trafficking, and urge them to be more vigilant.

"It may be incidents where a woman comes in with a friend, but you never see them (the friend)," Torrez said of a possible trafficking scenario. "And they usually want a first-floor room, they want easy access, and to be in and out, so they're not seen."

Hamilton-Brahm said vigilant people, like Torrez and other in attendance, are a major factor in addressing human trafficking in the region.

"People just need to be more alert because it's going on everywhere, from small towns to big towns," she told the Globe Gazette. "We don't think it would be going on in smaller areas ... Midwestern communities are very trusting. We try to wave to people and say, 'Hi,' and we don't want to believe sometimes that these types of crimes are occurring."

Going off script, Trump bashes immigration at tax cut event

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Tossing his "boring" prepared remarks into the air, President Donald Trump on Thursday unleashed a fierce denunciation of the nation's immigration policies, calling for tougher border security while repeating his unsubstantiated claim that "millions" of people voted illegally in California.

Trump was in West Virginia to showcase the benefits of Republican tax cuts, but he took a big and meandering detour to talk about his tough immigration and trade plans. He linked immigration with the rise of violent gangs like MS-13 and suggested anew that there had been widespread fraud in the 2016 election.

"In many places, like California, the same person votes many times. You probably heard about that," Trump said. "They always like to say, 'Oh, that's a conspiracy theory.' Not a conspiracy theory, folks. Millions and millions of people. And it's very hard because the state guards their records. They don't want us" to see them.

While there have been isolated cases of voter fraud in the U.S., past studies have found it to be exceptionally rare.

Trump initially claimed last year that widespread voting fraud had occurred in what appeared to be a means of explaining away his popular-vote defeat. Earlier this year the White House disbanded a controversial voter fraud commission amid infighting and lawsuits as state officials refused to cooperate.

In recent weeks, Trump has been pushing back more against the restraints of the office to offer more unvarnished opinions and take policy moves that some aides were trying to forestall. His remarks in West Virginia, like so many of his previous planned policy speeches, quickly came instead to resemble one of his free-wheeling rallies.

"This was going to be my remarks. They would have taken about two minutes," Trump said as he tossed his script into the air. "This is boring. We have to tell it like it is."

As he has done before, Trump conjured images of violence and suffering when he described the perils of illegal immigration, though statistics show that immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than citizens. He dubbed MS-13 gang members "thugs" and said his administration's crackdown on the group was "like a war."

"MS-13 is emblematic of evil, and we're getting them out by the hundreds," said Trump, who sat on stage at a long table in a gym draped in American flags and decorated with signs that read "USA open for business." ''This is the kind of stuff and crap we are allowing in our country, and we can't do it anymore."

Invoking the lines of his June 2015 campaign kickoff speech, in which he suggested that some Mexican immigrants were rapists, the president mused about the threat of violence among immigrants and appeared to make reference to a caravan of migrants that had been working its way north through Mexico toward the United States.

"Remember my opening remarks at Trump Tower when I opened? Everybody said, 'Oh, he was so tough,' and I used the word rape," he said. "And yesterday it came out where this journey coming up, women are raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before. They don't want to mention that."

It was not clear what Trump was referring to. White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Trump wasn't talking about the caravan but rather about extreme victimization of those making the journey north with smugglers in general. And press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later said that she was "not sure why the media is acting like this isn't a well-established fact — women and young girls are brutally victimized on the journey north."

Trump also defended his proposed tariff plan, which many of his fellow Republicans fear will start a trade war with China. He criticized West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who has expressed openness to working with the White House, for opposing the GOP tax plan. He praised attendees Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, both running in the Republican primary for Senate next month, suggesting an applause test between the two. And, of course, he reminisced about his 2016 electoral victory in the Mountain State.

All of that overshadowed any time spent promoting the tax plan.

It underscored the frustration of many congressional Republicans with the president's frequent indiscipline. Many members of his own party have blamed the president's lack of focus for helping to stymie their agenda, and they are eager for him to focus on the tax cut, the most significant legislation achievement on which to run in the upcoming midterm elections.

While Trump went off script, the attendees — an assemblage of state politicians, local business owners, workers and families — stayed dutifully on task, talking about how the tax cuts have helped them.

One woman, Jessica Hodge, tearfully told Trump: "I just want to say thank you for the tax cuts. This is a big deal for our family." Jenkins said that "West Virginians understand your policies are working" and that Trump was "welcome to come back any time."

Iowa Senate OKs production of industrial hemp

DES MOINES — Senators on Wednesday voted 49-0 to approve a bill that would allow Iowa farmers and researchers to produce and market industrial hemp.

Senate File 2398 would create two programs administered by the state Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and state regents universities. One program allows farmers to grow it, and the other will allow university research into hemp usage. The crop, once common in the Midwest, can be used to produce clothing, rope and paper.

The programs would operate under tight state regulations and testing designed to guard against plants containing more than three-tenths of 1 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the ingredient found in recreational marijuana in levels between 10 percent and 27 percent.

Sen. Tom Shipley, R-Nodaway, noted the 2014 Farm Bill allowed industrial hemp to be grown for research or as a registered cash crop.

Its production was outlawed in 1937 because the plant is part of the cannabis family. Thirty-four states have since legalized hemp production.

“People just had trouble getting their heads around the fact that this is not an illegal drug,” said Shipley, in noting the long process Iowa has gone through to reach Wednesday’s milestone.

“The industrial hemp probably looks very similar to the old ditch weed — we used to call it,” he said. “This doesn’t have and won’t have, can’t have by law, a THC level that would be like recreational marijuana.

“With this provision, if that crop is tested, and they all are, if it’s found to be that way, that crop is destroyed.”

Shipley said he was optimistic the legislation would get a favorable look in the Iowa House en route to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk yet this session.

The bill would require hemp found to exceed the THC limit to be destroyed via a controlled burn, shredding or other authorized processes. Industrial hemp could not be used in the production of medical cannabis currently authorized under Iowa law.

Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford, a farmer and retired deputy sheriff, said legalizing the production of industrial hemp “would be a big step toward revitalizing Iowa’s small towns and our rural areas” by creating new opportunities for family farmers.

“It will be a great day in Iowa when the governor signs this legislation into law,” Kinney said.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said Iowa needs to develop new agricultural products and markets, especially given the brewing trade war that has foreign countries targeting U.S. farm commodities with new tariffs.

“I think industrial hemp with the appropriate restrictions here and safeguards is an interesting new area,” he said.