The federal government’s separation of children from their parents as they arrived at the southwest border is pivotal in Arizona’s Senate race.
Republican U.S. Rep. Martha McSally said in a Sept. 16 Fox News interview that her party was working on a bill to enforce the laws and keep families together.
She claimed that her Democratic opponent in the Senate race, U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, in contrast supported a bill that encouraged child trafficking.
"My opponent and every Democrat got on a bill that essentially says if you cross the border illegally, and you have a kid with you and you commit a crime, another crime within 100 miles of the border, you can’t be arrested," McSally said. "This is essentially encouraging child trafficking and that’s what my opponent supported."
McSally’s campaign told us she’s referring to the Keep Families Together Act, co-sponsored by nearly all Democrats, including Sinema.
Did the Sinema-backed bill enable or encourage child trafficking?
Not according to several immigration experts and researchers who study human trafficking.
They said the bill is about keeping families together and that it includes safeguards against trafficking.
U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., introduced the Keep Families Together Act in June amid calls for President Donald Trump’s administration to end a policy leading to the separation of immigrant families.
Nadler’s proposal would prohibit the Department of Homeland Security, Justice Department, and Health and Human Services from removing a child (under 18 years old and without permanent immigration status) from his or her parent or legal guardian, at or near the port of entry, or within 100 miles of the U.S. border.
However, the bill lays out several circumstances in which border officials can separate children. A child could be removed if:
• the child is a victim of trafficking or is at significant risk of becoming a victim of trafficking;
• there is a strong likelihood that the adult is not the parent or legal guardian of the child; and
• the child is in danger of abuse or neglect at the hands of the parent or legal guardian, or is a danger to themselves or others.
If a child is removed, an independent child welfare expert licensed by the state or county where the separation happened has to authorize it within 48 hours. If not authorized, families are reunited. (Experts said child welfare is regulated by states.)
The bill also gives state courts and state or county child welfare agencies their own authority to separate a child from a parent or legal guardian, if it’s in the child’s best interest.
McSally said that the proposal prevented the arrest of people who came with children and committed "another crime within 100 miles of the border." But the bill doesn’t say that.
The bill says asylum seekers may not be prosecuted for immigration law violations until their asylum application is adjudicated. Under current law, asylum seekers must be in the United States to request the protection. They can apply for it even if they entered the country illegally.
Nadler’s measure calls for periodic reports on separations. The reports would need to include whether an adult was charged with a crime, the type of crime, whether that charge was prosecuted and the outcome.
Sinema’s campaign said the bill would keep families together while removing them from potential trafficking situations.
The bill is unlikely to pass so long as Republicans control the U.S. House.
The bill diminishes federal enforcement and empowers "state government determinations that would likely happen well after the point of apprehension and detention on a federal level," said Torunn Sinclair, a spokeswoman for McSally’s campaign.
Sinclair also argued that the bill incentivizes traffickers to claim children as their own.
While it may not be easy to determine in some cases whether an adult is the parent of a child, border officials who come in contact with them are trained to figure that out, said David Kyle, associate professor of sociology at University of California-Davis.
The onus remains on parents to prove a relationship, Kyle said.
"No matter how the law is written, law enforcement officials have laws they can invoke if there is a suspicion that the child is not with their legal guardian or parent," Kyle said. "I don't think anything in the bill would undercut those laws and clearly supports exceptions based on those suspicions."
The part of the bill saying an "independent child welfare expert" has to authorize separations within 48 hours raises questions regarding the practical implementation of the bill, Kyle said.
Still, "on the face of it, I don't see the bill facilitating child trafficking," Kyle said.
Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, an associate professor and director of the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research at Arizona State University, also doesn't see the bill as encouraging child trafficking. "This is much less to do with sexual exploitation and more to do with separating families," she said.
McSally said Sinema supported a bill that encourages child trafficking.
Sinema co-sponsored a bill to limit the separation of immigrant families arriving at U.S. borders. McSally’s team said the bill reduces federal authority and incentivizes traffickers to claim children as their own.
However, the bill says a child can be separated if federal immigration officials believe that the child is being trafficked or faces that risk. Separation can also take place if there’s a strong likelihood that a child and adult are not related.
Under the bill, a state or county child welfare expert has to authorize a separation within 48 hours. It also gives state courts and agencies their own ability to separate a child from an adult, especially if the child’s safety is at risk.
Immigration and human trafficking researchers disagree with McSally’s assessment of the bill. We rate McSally’s statement False.