Sex trafficking law at the heart of immigration debate

Advocates and opponents of immigration reform alike have found themselves centering recent debates on a law that was passed in 2008, during the administration of President George W. Bush. The law in question, known as the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, was designed to provide safety and protection to immigrants (predominantly children) who had experienced the horrors of sex trafficking.

The reason for the current debate over the act, though, has little to do with sex trafficking. Current controversy focuses more on how the act categorizes and separates immigrants into two distinct groups: contiguous immigrants (those who come from Canada or Mexico) and non-contiguous immigrants (those from countries with whom America does not share a border). The law states that unaccompanied children who arrive here from Canada or Mexico must undergo a screening by border patrol agents. These agents, in turn, are allowed to send them back to their home countries immediately if no fear or persecution is indicated.

Unaccompanied children arriving from non-contiguous countries, however, are to be automatically entered into deportation proceedings. This entails handing them over to the Department of Health and Human Services for processing with 72 hours of their arrival and scheduling a deportation trial. Arrangements are then made for these children to stay with family or friends in America (if possible) while they wait for their trial. With a backlog of over 350,000 cases, deportation trials can take years to schedule. Many of these minors never appear for their trials, having found an entrance into the country.

Proponents of immigration reform argue that the screenings undergone by contiguous immigrants are inadequate, and that border patrol agents immediately assume that Mexican children have no protection needs. Those in support of closing U.S. borders argue that the law is outdated, having been passed at a time when roughly 8,000 unaccompanied children entered the country each year. Since October 2013, over 52,000 unaccompanied migrant children have crossed into America.

The disagreement comes at an inopportune time for reform advocates, as it seems to be holding up Congress’ decision regarding President Barack Obama’s request for $3.7 billion to navigate the immigration crisis. Congress is set to take their summer recess in two weeks, and many fear that they may not make a decision regarding the funding or reform by then.