The humanitarian crisis resulting from thousands of immigrant children crossing into the United States illegally every month has its origins in a little-known law that was passed in the dying days on the George W. Bush administration.
The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act, named after a 19th century abolitionist, was a bipartisan measure touted by evangelical groups and signed by President Bush on Dec. 23, 2008, that was meant to prevent sex trafficking, The New York Times reported.
The bill gave undocumented children entering the United States — except for kids from Mexico or Canada — a litany of new rights and protections, mainly prohibiting U.S. authorities from sending them back to their own country immediately.
The legislation mandated that the children be given the chance to appear at an immigration hearing, have access to an attorney, and be able to meet with an advocate.
The new regulations also required that the children be placed in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, which was directed to house the minors "in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest" of each child. The agency also had to attempt to reunite the children with their parents or family members.
The Obama administration claims that the law is the reason that it cannot just round up undocumented children, quickly put them on a bus and ship them back across the border, or fly them home directly to their own countries.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in fact, recently sent a letter to Speaker John Boehner, saying that Congress must make sure that the regulations of the trafficking victims act "are fully enforced, so that due process is provided to unaccompanied children and the safety and well-being of unaccompanied children is protected."
And Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said on Monday, "Making sure that we are acknowledging the humanitarian issues that are at stake while also enforcing the law is a priority. It's the priority of this administration, and if you listen to the public comments of Democrats and Republicans, it sounds like it's a bipartisan priority."
President Barack Obama had been expected to ask Congress to allow the administration some flexibility in the Wilberforce law during his appeal for more than $2 billion in emergency funds on Tuesday to deal with the current immigration crisis, the Times said.
But Obama recently decided
to hold off for the time being in seeking new legal authority to send unaccompanied migrant kids back home faster, following criticism that the planned changes were too harsh.
However, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, an architect of the Wilberforce act, said the White House does not require more authority from Congress to ramp up the deportations process.
"That law already provides the administration with flexibility to accelerate the judicial process in times of crisis," she said. "The administration should use that flexibility to speed up the system while still treating these children humanely, with compassion and respect."
Republicans claim that Obama facilitated the border surge by launching a program that deferred deportations for some immigrants who entered the nation illegally as children, according to the newspaper.
While calling on Obama to institute changes to make it easier to send undocumented children home, the Republicans say that Democrats are using the Bush-era legislation in an attempt to pass the blame of the immigration scandal onto the GOP.
Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who supported the Wilberforce act, said that several factors led to the crisis, including "exploitation of our laws, the ungoverned space in Central America, as well as the desperate poverty faced by those deciding to cross."
He added, "With all these factors in mind, it's hard to think that today's situation at the border can be directly attributed to a law that's been in effect now for six years."
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