On Dec. 23, 2008, President George W. Bush signed the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act into law. White House Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto called the bill “a priority issue for the administration in preventing the trafficking of persons around the world,” adding, “So this is a piece of legislation we're very proud to sign.”
the White House may have been excited about signing the legislation, but few others took notice. The country was teetering towards recession. Banks were failing. The president-elect was announcing his cabinet picks. Wilberforce was no biggie.
Over the last few months, however, as minors piled up at the border, the law has drawn a lot of attention — and blame.
Blaming the 2008 legislation for the current crisis is more than a bit overblown. But it’s catnip to those seeking to politicize the crisis.
Exhibit A: A Dallas Morning News editorial headlined: “Just like Iraq, immigration crisis has roots in GOP leadership.”
Three conveniently overlooked facts: Congress passed the bill with overwhelming bipartisan support (as, by the way, they did the war in Iraq); the law is narrowly targeted at human trafficking -- the buying and selling of humans -- not at people who would rather live here than there; the law doesn't bar the president from pressing for the expedited removal of unaccompanied minors.
None of that, of course, has kept the White House from using the law as cover for inaction.
That is not saying the William Wilberforce Act is perfect. Indeed, the provisions for unaccompanied minors were open to abuse -- something that officials at the Department of Homeland Security pointed out when the bill was before Congress. Lawmakers ought to fix the bill, but it is neither the cause nor the cure for the current crisis.
Still, there's a larger lesson here for leaders of the conservative movement: They should pay more attention to global human rights issues.
Some conservative groups do put these issues front and center. Cliff May's Foundation for the Defense of Democracies has done yeoman's work highlighting Iranian human rights abuses. The Acton Institute has long been an active voice for religious liberty. And some conservative lawmakers, like Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., have always kept human rights at the top of their agenda.
But for much of the rest of the movement, they seem an afterthought.
In part, the conservative malaise may result from the Left’s relentless efforts to hijack human rights issues—expanding the definition to encompass every progressive cause imaginable, from climate change to sexual and reproductive rights for youth.
Repressive regimes also love to play at human rights. Iran, for example, recently won a seat on the U.N. Women’s Rights Commission. The “defamation of religions” movement at the U.N. actually seeks to legitimatize suppression of free speech and religious liberty.
Conservatism is firmly rooted in the principles that “all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Rather than cede terrain to causes that do little to advance human freedom, conservatives should fighting to take back the human-rights high ground.
For progressives, empathy trumps all. But conservatives understand the importance of balancing justice, liberty and empathy. The focus is on solving problems—without diminishing the rights of others in the process.
Conservatives approach human rights issues with deference to fiscal responsibility, sovereignty, the rule of law, and practicality as well as the impulse to “do good.” It is only natural that they should make human rights a cornerstone of their policy agenda.
- James Jay Carafano is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in the Washington Examiner