AUSTIN -- As small groups of undocumented immigrants are being returned to Central America, efforts to return them more quickly are now focusing on a 2008 anti-child trafficking law.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) say criminal cartels are exploiting the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush and enacted under President Barack Obama.
The anti-child sex trafficking law prevents children arriving illegally in the U.S. from nations other than Mexico and Canada from being immediately returned to their home countries, where they may face repeated exploitation, in order to give them the opportunity to make a legal case for remaining in the United States.
"They've figured out this gap in this 2008 law which allows children to basically be released to family members in the United States and be served with a notice to appear. It won't surprise you that most of them don't show back up," Cornyn said Tuesday in a joint appearance with Cuellar on MSNBC's Morning Joe. "So what Henry and I are trying to do is to fix that gap."
The president asked Congress for a $3.7 billion emergency supplemental appropriation last week, much of which would care for the tens of thousands of children already here. Republicans have criticized the president's request for spending too little on border security and not addressing immigration policies they believe have exacerbated the problem, such as the 2008 law.
Proposed by Cornyn and Cuellar, the Helping Unaccompanied Minors and Alleviating National Emergency (HUMANE) Act would add more judges and amend the 2008 law to speed up the legal process. By tying the bill to requests for additional funding, the Texas lawmakers hope for a bipartisan breakthrough. According to a release from Cornyn's office, the bill seeks to:
- "Improve the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008—treating all unaccompanied migrant children crossing our border with equality under the law, and allowing for voluntary reunification with family, whether they are from Mexico, Central America, or any other country.
- Keep current protections for safe repatriation.
- Allow unaccompanied migrant children who have a claim to remain legally in the United States to make this claim in court before an immigration judge within 7 days of the completion of Health and Human Services screening under the TVPRA of 2008. It authorizes up to 40 new immigration judges for this purpose, and keeps current law in place requiring HHS to make all efforts to secure pro-bono legal counsel for the child.
- Require immigration judges to make a determination as to whether an unaccompanied migrant child is eligible to remain in the United States within 72 hours of making their claim. Children who succeed in their claim will be allowed to remain in the United States in the custody of a sponsor while they pursue their legal remedies. Children who do not successfully make such a claim will be reunited with family in their home country.
- Require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to provide unaccompanied migrant children with protective shelter while they are awaiting their initial hearing in court before a judge.
- Allow access to these expedited court hearings for unaccompanied migrant children who have already been released to sponsors with notices to appear in immigration court.
- Require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to conduct FBI fingerprint background checks on any person taking custody of an unaccompanied alien child. Prohibits the Secretary from releasing children to persons convicted of sex offenses and human trafficking."
"Let's put the resources that we need to put down there and not only for the border, not only for judges, not only for ICE but also for the Latin American countries," Cuellar told CNN Tuesday. "So it's a full-funding appropriation that we have to do, emergency bill, but we still have to do policy changes."
Yet the bill may be a tough sell for other Democrats, both in the House and Senate.
"The misnamed 'HUMANE' Act, ought to be named the 'GONE' Act -- Get Out Now Everyone," Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) said in a statement Tuesday. "It won't solve the problem, but will abuse the rights of children who sought refuge here."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the bill won't get his support either.
"I think that it's too broad," Reid told reporters Tuesday. "It addresses more than just the border problem."
With just two weeks until lawmakers return home for the summer recess, the White House made its frustration clear.
"There's already been ample opportunity for Congress to take action," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said during Tuesday's press briefing. "And we want to encourage them to move forward with some sense of urgency."
To see the full text of the HUMANE Act -- CLICK HERE.
To see the president's supplemental appropriation request --CLICK HERE.