Senate Settles Trafficking Bill Controversy Over Abortion, But Immigration Amendments Could Still Stop Passage

Loretta Lynch vote also hangs in the balance.


Alexander Rabb/Flickr

U.S. Senators today reached a deal on legislation addressing human trafficking. Passage of the "Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act" (JVTA)—along with a vote on the confirmation of attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch—had been delayed for several weeks due to a partisan dispute over abortion funding for trafficking victims. 

CBS News explains the complicated compromise, which ultimately does not allow funds allocated under the bill to go toward abortions: 

The bill was held up earlier this year over a provision that would block money in a new victims' fund from paying for abortions. The provision goes further than similar anti-abortion clauses that Republicans have added to past laws, Democrats argued. Typically, the restriction against using funds for abortions (referred to as the "Hyde amendment") has been applied only to taxpayer funds. In this case, however, the rule would apply to the victims' fund, even though it will be financed by fees paid by sex criminals.

A group of bipartisan lawmakers found a compromise, while keeping the abortion restrictions in place for the new fund. Money collected from sex criminals will be used for services like legal aid, while victims' health services will be funded by taxpayer money (and thus cannot be used for abortions).

Senators are slated to actually vote on the trafficking bill tomorrow. But even with the abortion issue settled, there's still a chance that political maneuvering could doom the legislation, according to Politico. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) warned that Democrats would block the bill if Republicans force a vote on controversial amendments concerning immigration and other issues. 

… the list of potential amendments include several immigration-related measures, such as one from Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) meant to revoke birthright citizenship to those born in the United States but with a parent who is not a U.S. citizen, a member of the military, or a holder of a green card.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) has two immigration-related proposals: one that allows for indefinite detention of certain immigrants who are in deportation proceedings, and another that would expedite removal of unaccompanied migrant children who come from countries other than Mexico or Canada — a provision in another trafficking law from 2008 that was at the heart of the debate over last summer's border crisis.

As an exercise in Congressional dysfunction, this human trafficking bill has been superb. But (as I've mentioned previously), this is one of those cases where gridlock is probably our best hope. From the kinds of projects the bill would fund to the new powers it would bestow on federal agents and the new criminal penalties it would create (for sex buyers), everything in the JVTA is oriented toward a punitive, tough-on-crime approach that ignores important realities about sex work, migration, and trafficking. The tactics it supports have proven remarkably useful for prosecuting ordinary prostitution, vice, and poverty while all but ignoring strategies that many victims and advocates claim would matter most.