Third-year law student takes aim at human trafficking

Caitlyn Burnitis, University of Miami School of Law student.
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Caitlyn Burnitis, University of Miami School of Law student.

Third-year law student takes aim at human trafficking

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Through symposia and other forums, Caitlyn Burnitis is aiding in the fight to end a criminal enterprise that ensnares more than 24 million victims worldwide.

The number hit Caitlyn Burnitis like a ton of bricks, bringing her close to tears. 

Human trafficking, she learned, ensnares more than 24 million victims worldwide, many of them children of all ages. 

“That’s what was most heartbreaking for me—finding out that it affects the most vulnerable,” Burnitis recalled of the magazine article she read as a high school student. It also revealed other startling information about human trafficking, including the fact that it generates profits of roughly $150 billion a year, making it one of the fastest-growing criminal enterprises in the world, second only to the illicit drug trade. 

But instead of relegating that information to her short-term memory, Burnitis decided to learn as much as she could about the problem, becoming so passionate about the issue that she resolved to dedicate her life and career to raising awareness about it. 

Today, as a third-year University of Miami School of Law student, she has become a powerful voice in the cause against the form of modern-day slavery in which traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to control victims for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or labor services. 

Burnitis founded and now serves as president of the Miami Law Alliance Against Human Trafficking. 

“The few times people do talk about it, they seem to think it only happens overseas in third-world countries. But it’s happening here, all over the United States, and especially in our state,” said Burnitis, referring to the fact that Florida ranks third in the U.S. in human trafficking cases, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. “Our goal is to educate students and the community about this scourge and demonstrate how the legal field can play a major role in combating it.” 

Her alliance has organized and continues to host symposia that bring in speakers dedicated to eradicating human trafficking. The group has featured prosecutors in the Human Trafficking Unit of the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office and advocates like Somy Ali, a former Bollywood actress who founded the nonprofit No More Tears—which rescues trafficking victims. 

The alliance hosted a Sharing the Playbook one-day conference in January, addressing the issue of how human trafficking is believed to spike during major sporting events like the Super Bowl. And most recently, Burnitis and her team partnered with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on an event that informed the public of the federal agency’s efforts in assisting human trafficking survivors, such as bringing federal civil suits where criminal cases may not be possible. 

A Miami Public Interest Scholar, Burnitis also addresses some of the controversial issues surrounding human trafficking. Last year, Congress passed, and President Donald Trump signed into law, legislation that allows law enforcement officials to go after websites that facilitate sex trafficking, and to hold tech companies like Facebook and YouTube accountable for the content on their sites. 

But sex workers have countered that the new legislation, known as FOSTA-SESTA, endangers their lives, pushing them off online platforms and onto the streets, where they face increased threats of physical violence. 

“We really don’t have the data to know whether it’s working or not,” Burnitis said. “The legislation has its pros and cons, but more analysis is need on whether it’s helping or hurting people.”

She has written an article, soon to be published in the University of Miami Race and Social Justice Law Review, that addresses the law and the controversy surrounding it.

Burnitis has interned for both the Southern and Middle District offices of the U.S. Attorney, getting a firsthand look at how prosecutors handle criminal cases—from the investigation to the trial phase. 

She is hoping to land a postgraduate fellowship that will allow her to continue to address human trafficking. 

“People only think of human trafficking’s effect on the economy, and they don’t see the human toll it takes,” Burnitis said. “I want to help change that.”