Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights -- Immigrant Children, Trafficking . . . And Abortion?

March 6, 2012

The Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights sent a delegation to Capitol Hill to push for immigration reform.  What follows is the account of that trip from Young Center clinic students Cathy Yang '13 and Peter Chen '13.

Cathy Yang and Peter Chen Go to Washington: Immigrant Children, Trafficking . . . and Abortion?

We recently traveled to Washington, D.C. with Maria Woltjen, Director of the Young Center clinic, to educate Congressional staff about the immigration system for unaccompanied immigrant children. Unaccompanied children come to the United States from all corners of the world, on their own, without their parents or traditional caregivers. They’re apprehended by immigration authorities and detained in facilities around the country. Through the Young Center clinic, we serve as guardian ad litem (Child Advocate) for unaccompanied children detained in Chicago. In the last six months, Peter and I have worked with four different children detained here in Chicago, from countries including India and China. 

On this trip, though, our goal was to meet with Senate and House members who sit on the Judiciary and Appropriations Committees to advocate for the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), pending legislation sponsored by Senator Leahy (D-VT). This bill contains a provision that would expand Child Advocate services to children in immigration detention across the country. Right now, these services exist only in Chicago, and on an extremely limited basis in South Texas.

In the words of one Congressional staffer, the TVPRA reauthorization legislation is caught up in a “kerfuffle”. A short history: in October of 2011, the TVPRA reauthorization was voted favorably out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, with the support of Republicans and Democrats. What happened next could not have been predicted. A contract dispute arose between the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. After a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2009, HHS had implemented a grant-award policy that would give strong preference to agencies that refer women, especially trafficking victims, to contraceptive, abortion, or family planning services. In late September 2011, HHS ended funding to the Conference of Catholic Bishops, which had been receiving grants to serve trafficking victims nationwide since 2006 -- HHS instead gave the grants to three non-Catholic organizations.

To counter what was seen, correctly or incorrectly, as HHS’s “pro-abortion” agenda, House Republicans introduced a new version of the TVPRA bill that would yank all trafficking programs from HHS and give them to the Department of Justice. Hence, the “kerfuffle” – a stalemate between the House and the Senate, with abortion at the center.

In light of the dim prospects for passage of the TVPRA reauthorization law, the Young Center focused on exploring alternative avenues to garner support for developing Child Advocate programs in other parts of the country. This trip to D.C. was our chance to propose that Senators and Congressmen recommend “carve-out” language in the HHS appropriations report, which would urge the set-aside of funds for expansion of child advocate programs nation-wide.

Our first meeting was with the office of Senator Cornyn (R-TX). Senator Cornyn has been a great supporter of the Child Advocate program—because it is a border state, there are more than 900 children in child detention facilities in that state alone. We met in Sen. Cornyn’s offices where Cathy Yang presented an overview of the issues. The meeting was upbeat and it was clear that Sen. Cornyn’s office is truly invested in supporting trafficking victims and unaccompanied child immigrants. We left with a sense of optimism and a long list of new people to meet with.
Our next meeting was with Rep. Chris Smith’s office (R-NJ). Rep. Smith is the author of the original TVPRA, enacted in 2000, as well as the sponsor of the 2011 House version of the TVPRA reauthorization bill. Rep. Smith’s staff kindly walked us through a summary of the changed provisions in the new House bill, including the most signficant change which would take programs away from HHS, and turn them over to DOJ.  The House bill also features a section prohibiting discrimination against any organization, including faith-based organizations, when it comes to grant-making decisions. The bill also includes a “conscience clause” providing that if an organization refuses to provide a service due to moral or religious objections, the federal government is required to make accommodations.

Our second day in Washington was very ambitious, with four meetings lined up with various Senators and members of Congress. The morning got off to a good start at Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s office (D-IL). His staff was very receptive to Cathy Yang’s presentation about the work that we do.  He was also quite optimistic about our proposal, saying that it would be “not too difficult” to get the kind of language we want into the appropriations bill.

We took the momentum from the first meeting into our next one with Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) in the Capitol Building. His two staffers were extremely knowledgeable about immigration and trafficking issues, so we had an easy time explaining the issue and the proposed appropriations language. At the conclusion of the meeting, the staffers offered useful recommendations about whom we should talk to on the Senate side. From the Capitol Building, we were escorted back to the Rayburn Office Building on the two-car subway line that was built in 1965.
After a lunch break, it was time to meet with Sen. Mark Kirk’s office (R-IL). We knew going into the meeting that immigration and trafficking are issues important to Sen. Kirk. Peter Chen made the pitch. What we didn’t expect was how impressed we would be by the staffers – it was clear from their many questions that they were passionate about the issue of unaccompanied immigrant kids. At the end of the meeting, they even asked us whether there were any issues that were not addressed by the current TVPRA legislation, a question that took all of us by surprise, though we were quick to offer suggestions.
Our final meeting was with the offices of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Senator Leahy has spearheaded signficant legislation on behalf of immigrants and refugees and his senior counsel really set the tone for the meeting. The staffers provided valuable advice about how to bring more Senators to our cause, and how to structure the proposed appropriations language.
We ended this whirlwind tour of the Hill by catching an earlier flight home to Chicago – we were exhausted, but learned a lot about the research, preparation and personal relationships necessary to the legislative process. We got our message out to numerous offices of Congressmen and Senators, and received references to open the door at many more. Each meeting was valuable in its own way. It was great to see our hard work pay off, and we’re looking to going back to DC to accomplish even more.