The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act -- one of the final bills signed by President George W. Bush and passed almost unanimously -- was originally passed to prevent sex trafficking, but now the Obama administration says the law makes it difficult to handle the current flood of unaccompanied minors coming from Central America.
The law prevents children from countries other than Canada and Mexico who enter the United States alone from being sent back to their countries quickly, instead giving them an immigration hearing, representation, and placement by the Department of Health and Human Services in "the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child."
Administration officials have discussed requesting Congress change the law to speed up the deportations of the children, some 52,000 of whom have entered the country since October. Still, a request for $3.7 billion in emergency funding on Tuesday made no mention of the 2008 law, and the White House has signaled that it wants to let Congress take the lead on whether to make legislative changes.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., one of the authors of the 2008 law, and House Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have both said they believe the law already provides flexibility for the administration to accelerate the required judicial process.
But with Republicans calling for the minors to be immediately processed and returned, the way Mexican children are, some change in the law may be in the offing.
At his weekly press conference at the Capitol Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was straightforward when asked if he thought the law should be changed so Central American children could be repatriated in as a little as a day.
"I do," he said. "I think the president agrees with that as well."
Democrats were more circumspect in their remarks.
Pelosi said that she didn't think changing the law "should be a priority, but it's not a deal-breaker."
She said that while her preference would be for the law to allow all children coming across the border to get a hearing, not just those from non-contiguous countries, her immediate focus was on getting the emergency funding passed, and was willing to discuss a number of compromises to get there.
(Update: A spokesman for Pelosi later clarified the minority leader's statement, emphasizing her desire to see the law changed so Mexican children receive the same protections as minors from non-contiguous countries. "What the Republicans want to do to modify current law goes in the wrong direction," Jorge Aguilar said. "If any changes to the 2008 law are made, they must ensure due process for these children.")
"There's a burning building, and we've got to put out the fire," she said. "I'm not going to have a conversation about the color of the buckets."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took a similar stance, saying he would not rule anything out.
"These children should be treated as humanely as possible," Reid said. "Let's see what comes to the floor."
But while both parties seem to be at least close to the same page, the political frustrations that have made this one of the most rancorous Congressional terms in recent memoir could still sink a deal.
Boehner, showing a flash of frustration, pounded the podium when a reporter asked if his party would face political consequences if the funding does not get approved.
"Listen: This is a problem of the president's own making," he said. "He's been president for five and a half years. When's he going to take responsibility for something?"
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