CAPITOL HILL —
U.S. lawmakers are clashing over whether Congress needs to make changes to a law signed in 2008 to protect child victims of sex-trafficking. The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection act is now providing the legal foundation to halt the immediate deportation of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America who are crossing the border into the United States. Most Republicans and some Democrats are calling for changes to the law to speed up the deportation process at the border, but others want the law -- and its protections for children -- to stay in place.
As unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras continue to cross the U.S.-Mexican border, debate is heating up in the U.S. Congress about what to do with them. Republicans are blaming Democratic President Barack Obama.
“At the end of the day, this is the president’s border crisis. I believe it was his statements and his encouragement that has led to this humanitarian crisis," said Congressman Tim Huelskamp.
The president says he is looking for solutions, and has asked Congress for $ 3.7 billion in emergency funding to deal with the border crisis. But some lawmakers say they will not give the president a blank check, and are calling for changes to the 2008 law.
“The first thing we need to do is to change the 2008 law. The intent of the law was not to help the children that are coming to the border right now, but to help children in sex-trafficking cases,” said Republican Congressman Raul Labrador.
Most Democrats disagree, including Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.
“That we should give children of any country, contiguous or non-contiguous at least due process rights, because these are children, who in actuality, have fled violence, or human trafficking or sex trafficking, and they are sometimes unable to articulate that in a short period of time,” said Lee.
Proposed new legislation would treat Central American children the same as children from Mexico -- giving all of them a chance to appear before a judge, if they pass an initial screening by border patrol agents. Republican Senator John Cornyn is one of the authors of the bill.
“We need to have immigration laws that protect these children and all of us. And it does not mean that anybody and everybody under every circumstance can qualify to come to the United States and stay. That's simply an invitation to chaos,” said Cornyn.
A shortage of immigration judges is a big part of the problem, according to Doris Meissner of the Migration Policy Institute.
“The fact that the law offers protections to young people of an immigration hearing, and that the immigration hearings and small numbers of judges that are available in the system, that is what is contributing to long delays in the process of making the decisions,” said Meissner.
Some children and their mothers have already been returned to Honduras. Meissner said safety is a concern.
“Now of course we do return people to these countries on a regular basis, but they are adults. And we have not been returning kids to these countries," Meissner continued.
Pope Francis has also commented on the border crisis, saying the U.S. should welcome and protect the migrant children from Central America.