SALT LAKE CITY — Left unchanged, U.S. asylum laws will continue to let human traffickers bring children across the southern border and sell them as sex slaves, Sen. Mike Lee told a U.S. Senate committee Thursday.
"Children are brought to the border by cartels who know the U.S. government will essentially complete the trafficking route for them at the end of the road by releasing the child into the interior, in some cases to sponsors who claim to be relatives but in fact are only the final link in the trafficking chain," he said.
"The fates of these children are horrible," Lee, R-Utah, said. "What they suffer is grotesque."
Lee helped Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee ram through an asylum law reform bill that Democrats say won't pass in Congress. Bipartisan negotiations on the proposal fell apart last week.
The legislation proposed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., would increase the number of days a family can be held together under the 1997 Flores agreement from 20 to 100 days, preventing family separations but extending the time children could be held in custody with their parents.
It would also require asylum claims be filed in Mexico or a home country instead of the United States, provide funding for 500 new immigration judges and allow unaccompanied minors from Central America to be sent back to their home countries, similar to unaccompanied minors from Canada and Mexico.
Democrats see the Flores settlement as a key protection for child migrants.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told the Judiciary Committee that partisan immigration legislation has no chance to become law. She said the bill would cause more problems at the border.
The bill gives President Donald Trump what he wants in his "war" on immigration, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told the committee
"It ratchets up the cruelty against refugees seeking asylum," he said. "It is as partisan and as short-sighted as it gets."
Lee said it's inaccurate to suggest the bill would undermine humanitarian protections for children and for other vulnerable migrants.
"These reforms are the heart of what many Republicans have been calling for and for reasons that astound and escape me, are somewhat unique to Republicans right now," he said.
The Flores agreement, a 2008 law that governs the rights of unaccompanied immigrant children who enter the U.S., and asylum laws exacerbate the problem and incentivize more human degradation, Lee said.
"These rules in tandem guarantee that if a minor is brought to our border he or she will be released soon after being apprehended," he said. "Worse still, though, if the child arrives with an adult, the adult can exploit the child to his or her benefit. The consequences of this regime are as horrific as they are predictable."
Lee said the laws and way they are abused without the proposed reforms end up facilitating heinous acts of human trafficking and smuggling, including children being sold into sex slavery.
"In countless cases, we the know that these children are being traded, bought, sold and then rented," he said.
Lee said a 51-year-old man recently crossed the border with an infant he claimed to be his but later admitted he had rented to get into the U.S.
"These smuggling routes are well-worn, they are well-known, but most importantly, they are built on the backs of our own laws, laws that are crying out in need of reform," the senator said.
Nearly a third of the women who are brought through those trafficking channels are sexually abused along the way, he said.
"These are the laws that are encouraging that. We’ve got to reform them," Lee said. "That’s what this bill calls for, so you can say you disagree with the policy but don’t call this a violation of humanitarian concerns. That’s exactly what we’re trying to solve."
In a statement after the committee meeting, Lee said even though everyone now admits there is a humanitarian crisis at the southern border, Democrats don’t seem to want to do anything about it, short of decriminalizing illegal immigration.
That's why closing the asylum loopholes that are driving the crisis are critical, he said.
"But given the very narrow nature of this emergency legislation, and the other border security problems it does not address, it should absolutely not be paired with any measures that would make the border crisis worse by extending legal status," Lee said.