When Immigration and Sex Trafficking Law Meet

Political battle lines are forming as unattended children pour over the U.S. border seeking asylum. If they are deported, their life prospects look dim.While politicians are finger-pointing, thousands of unaccompanied children are pouring into the United States to seek asylum.

President Obama is blamed for lax border enforcement and former President George W. Bush is fingered for signing a bipartisan-backed bill in 2008 designed to give legal protections in the United States to children trying to escape sex trafficking in their home countries, excluding Mexico and Canada.

The flood of unattended children showing up at the nation's doorstep coincides with a widespread political belief that comprehensive immigration reform is dead in this Congress, and maybe even longer. A Democratically controlled Senate, which sent a bipartisan immigration bill to the House, isn't likely to go for a bill that merely tinkers with immigration issues. 

So the Obama administration faces the task of what to do with children with legal rights, but not legal residency status. One community already has balked at having children bused to temporary housing there. And Obama is asking Congress for $4 billion for housing and more judges and courtrooms to process the children who risked their lives coming here. 

It is an ugly scene, no matter how you look at it. It also appears to be coagulating quickly into another partisan battlefront, which could obscure the humanitarian issues involved. The children coming here are clearly in harm's way in their Central American home countries. Their life prospects look pretty dim if they are returned to sender.

Congressional Republicans, who blame Obama for the surge, appear to favor a change making it easier to send back the children. But not all Republicans, including many in the evangelical community, are on board with that idea. Those who played a key role in passing the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act disagree that it should be changed. They say the law is doing what it was intended to do — protect children. 

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who helped write the anti-trafficking law, says it contains enough flexibility to allow the Obama administration to accelerate the judicial process afforded to protected children, "while still treating these children humanely, with compassion and respect."

Deporting most of these children may not strike some as humane, compassionate or respectful. Pro-immigration reform forces are calling on the Obama administration to go slow on deportations and perhaps to look for ways to shelter the children.

Obama's options may be limited as House Republicans threaten impeachment or a lawsuit over allegedly overstepping his constitutional authority. Obama defenders call the threats laughable, but the threats and posturing get ink and galvanize the political base the GOP needs to mobilize to retake control of the Senate in this fall's general election.

When the children caught in this maelstrom become individual faces with real-life, horrifying stories about stabbings, robberies and rapes, there could be a national mood swing. That might temper political rhetoric and leave room for some kind of accommodation that doesn't consign these children to a certain fate we passed a law to prevent.