Obama flat wrong on trafficking law, says Rep. Gutiérrez

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President Obama is flat wrong to seek changes in current immigration law to manage the wave of migrant children at the southern border, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) charged Wednesday.

“I understand that people here are used to saying, ‘Oh, but you're a Democrat, aren't you going to follow the president?’” Gutiérrez said. “No, if the president's wrong, the president's wrong. I don't think we should change the law.”

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Obama has urged “more flexibility” to expedite deportations of the migrant children, and the head of the Homeland Security Department clarified Tuesday that he's seeking changes to a 2008 human trafficking law to speed up the process.

But Gutiérrez, echoing the sentiment of many House Democrats, said the debate over the trafficking law should occur only after the border crisis has passed and “clearer heads” prevail.

“You don't change a law when there's a crisis at the border,” Gutiérrez said. “Change it when there's level heads, when there's not a crisis to exploit.”

He added: “I didn't come here to take rights away from children.”

The comments arrive as the 2008 law — the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act — has become the central sticking point in the debate over Congress's response to the wave of immigrants who have crossed the border in recent months. 

Designed to battle sex trafficking, the law bars authorities from quickly deporting unaccompanied children arriving from countries other than Mexico or Canada. Instead, those children are afforded certain legal protections designed to ensure they aren't returned to threatening conditions.

With an estimated 57,000 unaccompanied children arriving at the southern border since October, however, the detainment facilities, healthcare services and immigration courts have been overwhelmed, leading the Obama administration to ask Congress for changes to the law in order to quicken the process.

“We’ve asked ... for a change in the law and we’re in active discussions with Congress right now about doing that,” DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said Tuesday.

He did not specify what changes the administration is eying.

A bipartisan bill, sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), would allow the Central American children to leave the United States voluntarily rather than go through mandated legal processes — effectively establishing the same rules governing unaccompanied kids from Mexico and Canada.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has insisted that something like the Cornyn-Cuellar bill be adopted as a condition of providing additional funding to help the administration manage the crisis. And, despite Johnson's comments, he's not convinced the White House is ready to go along.

In a letter to Obama Wednesday, Boehner asked the president to clarify his position on the issue. 

“Frankly, it is difficult to see how we can make progress on this issue without strong, public support from the White House for much-needed reforms, including changes to the 2008 law,” Boehner wrote. “I hope you will take the earliest possible opportunity to voice your continued support for common-sense efforts to stem the flow of children to our border.”

Gutiérrez was quick to note that the extra legal protections afforded the immigrant kids were first established as part of the 2002 bill to create the DHS — a proposal written by House Republicans and opposed by most Democrats.

“It wasn't as though we put it in there. They saw it as a logical protection of children, Republicans did,” Gutiérrez said of the provision, which was reestablished in 2008.  

“So Republicans were wrong in 2002? … So [Rep.] Louie 'I-never-saw-an-immigrant-that-didn't-have-a-disease' Gohmert was wrong in 2008 and he's right today? Come on. Even the most strident, anti-immigrant Republicans — Lamar Smith, Louie Gohmert, [Steve] King — they all voted for the legislation,” Gutiérrez said. 

“Why now do we have this division? What's different about today?,” he asked. “I think we all know they have a president they don't like, an election they want to win and a crisis on the border they want to exploit.”