Bill targeting the smuggling of girls gets bipartisan support as Congress deadlocks over broader immigration reform

Sen. Marsha Blackburn is working with other Republican women on smaller immigration reforms focused on young women. Her SAVE Girls Act is drawing Democratic backing.

Migrants wait at the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on March 29.Guillermo Arias / AFP via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — As Washington remains gridlocked over comprehensive immigration reform, an effort to help tackle the human trafficking crisis at the southern border is picking up bipartisan support.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., will introduce legislation Tuesday that would authorize $50 million to aid state and local governments along with nongovernmental organizations in combating the smuggling of young women and girls. The Stopping the Abuse, Victimization and Exploitation of Girls (SAVE Girls) Act seeks to prevent the trafficking and smuggling of vulnerable women across the country — in particular, those who have been brought illegally across the U.S.-Mexico border.

The legislation has garnered buy-in across the aisle, with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., throwing her support behind Blackburn's bill. Blackburn argues that addressing the humanitarian issue at the border shouldn’t be partisan, even as immigration continues to be a politically contentious subject.

The bill comes after Blackburn traveled to the border on a congressional delegation with two fellow female Republican senators in January. She, along with Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., and freshman Sen. Katie Britt, R-Ala., told NBC News in an interview that border patrol agents along the Rio Grande “begged” for help in combating the trafficking problem.

“Let’s work together. Let’s work in a bipartisan basis,” Blackburn said, pointing to trafficking and the fentanyl epidemic as possible areas of compromise. “Let’s pass some things that are going to help secure this border, that are going to protect our children, that are going to protect our communities so that parents know when your kids go to college, they’re safe.”

The trio, along with Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., introduced a separate bill in February that prohibits anyone charged with human or drug trafficking from drawing federal funding or benefits while they await prosecution. (If people are acquitted or charges are dropped, they'd be given back pay or benefits, according to a Blackburn fact sheet about the Stop Taxpayer Funding of Traffickers Act.)

Sens. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Katie Britt, R-Ala.Frank Thorp V / NBC News

The bill does not have any Democratic co-sponsors. Asked about the legislation, a spokesperson for Senate Homeland Security Committee Chair Gary Peters, D-Mich., pointed to his sponsorship of a separate bipartisan bill aimed at increasing support for victims of human trafficking.

A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said in a statement the department is reviewing the Republicans' Stop Taxpayer Funding of Traffickers Act. "From day one, this Administration has ramped up efforts to crack down on human smugglers and drug traffickers," the spokesperson added. "We’ve secured record funding for border security, launched an unprecedented anti-smuggling campaign with regional partners, and expanded legal pathways for immigration to cut out the smuggling networks preying on vulnerable migrants."

DHS launched a $60 million campaign in 2022 to dismantle human smuggling networks, resulting in the arrest of over 8,800 smugglers and the disruption of nearly 9,000 smuggling operations over the past year, per the department. DHS says that it is also deploying new high-tech solutions to crack down on criminal networks and that it has seized more drugs and arrested more people on fentanyl-related charges in the last two years than in the previous five years combined.

Prospects for comprehensive immigration reform remain dim in the Republican-led House and Democratic-led Senate. After record-high border crossings in 2022, 72% of Americans now say Congress should prioritize increasing border security, according to a January NBC News poll. But 80% in the same survey also said Congress should provide a legal pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements.

Instead, many Republicans in the House are pursuing efforts to revive the Trump administration-era border wall and crack down on asylum-seekers.

“When I was in the House, we tried to work on this issue in a constructive manner,” Blackburn said, while pointing the finger at Democrats. “And it’s disappointing to us that some of our colleagues across the aisle are wanting the issue and not the solution.”

Blackburn, Hyde-Smith and Britt say they are working together to address the problem, in part, because of something they all share: They are mothers.

“I think it has a lot to do with it,” Hyde-Smith said. “I have a small shoe on my desk that I picked up that came out of the Rio Grande River. And I will always keep that shoe on that desk so we can remember we got to continue to tell the story.”

“As a mama,” Britt shared, “when you look and you see those little shoes, when you see a 6-month-old baby trembling because they just got out of the water ... you realize that this crisis has a huge cost.”