SAN DIEGO -- Nearly every official who attended the second annual bi-national forum to address human trafficking in Chula Vista agreed: Human trafficking along the U.S.-Mexico border is on the rise.
Government figures show about 18,000 people are trafficked into the U.S. every year. But officials also acknowledge there are many more victims hidden in communities who are sold for prostitution, labor or other services. Often times the illegal practice goes unreported.
The goal of Thursday's forum was to improve collaboration between agencies on both sides of the border to help crackdown on human trafficking and child prostitution.
Recently, the state of Baja California implemented a new law designed to deter human trafficking. It classifies the activity as a "grave crime" and comes with a punishment of up to 22 years in prison.
Christopher Tenorio, an assistant U.S Attorney for the Southern District of California, applauds the new law.
"It's going to be very helpful for us," Tenorio said. "What this establishes is that Mexico won't be a haven for sex traffickers who will go back to Mexico to try to avoid capture."
Baja officials say the new law has led to the investigation of more than two dozen cases.
North of the border, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in San Diego said it hired a full-time victim witness coordinator last year who is helping train officers on how to handle cases involving human trafficking victims.
Officials also say human trafficking has become an integral part of organized crime over the last several years. According to Tenorio, collaboration with Mexico is critical since the San Diego-Tijuana border serves as a gateway for human trafficking.
"We have a unique community of vulnerable victims because of our immigrant community," Tenorio said. "We have a lot of people who are here illegally and don't speak English. So with those vulnerabilities, they can be exploited."