Arguing for a border wall, Trump says it will halt sex trafficking; a Utahn backs his case

(AP Photo/ Evan Vucci) Timothy Ballard, CEO of Operation Underground Railroad, left, listens as President Donald Trump speaks during an event on human trafficking in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Friday, Feb. 1, 2019, in Washington.

Washington • Pushing for Congress to approve money for a U.S.-Mexican border wall, the White House is now arguing that it’s for the kids.

“It’s very hard to do human trafficking through ports of entry because you have people standing there saying, ‘Hey what’s going on in the back seat, what’s going on in the trunk,’” President Donald Trump said Friday. “They check these things. So they come into areas where you don’t have the barriers.”

Sitting to the right of the president in the Cabinet Room was Utahn Timothy Ballard, who heads Operation Underground Railroad and asserted in a Fox News opinion piece earlier this week that a wall along the southern border would help halt the trafficking of underage victims to the United States.

But experts who deal with sex trafficking say most victims are either Americans or are brought through legal ports of entry and airports rather than illegally crossing a border.

“The wall is not going to be effective because most of the people [who] are trafficked into the country come into legal ports of entry; they come in with visas and legal documents,” says Evangeline M. Chan, director of the immigration law project at the group Safe Horizon. “And usually it’s not the overt aggressive forms of force that is described in that article.”

Ballard, whose nonprofit seeks to help victims of sex trafficking, was Trump's guest at a meeting at the White House on Friday as the president continues his quest to get Congress to fund $5.7 billion for a physical wall at America's southern border.

Ballard, prompted by Trump, told a story about an 11-year-old “raped for money every day” who had been brought to the United States through a part of the border that has no wall.

Ballard's spokeswoman did not respond to requests to document the claims he made at the White House or his arguments in a Fox News op-ed where the headline in part said, “We need to build the wall for the children.”

“I can say with certainty that the issue of the border wall should be not about power and partisan politics,” Ballard wrote, citing his previous 12 years as a special agent for Homeland Security. “It should be about the children – the tens of thousands of them who have been and are being trafficked into the U.S. and forced into the commercial sex trade.”

“Based on my extensive experience fighting transnational crime along the southern border, I know that we should absolutely finish building the wall for the sake of the children,” Ballard wrote.

If such a crisis exists, as the White House is touting, there has been a dearth of action by the federal government. In 2017, the most recent year for statistics, the Justice Department prosecuted 266 cases of sex trafficking, up from 228 in 2016 and 2015′s prosecution of 248 cases.

Homeland Security's public data do not show that sex trafficking is a major problem outside of ports of entry.

In fact, one of the most recent news releases from the Justice Department, announcing convictions or guilty pleas from 36 people, noted that the victims of sex trafficking were brought through ports of entry.

The sex traffickers, the Justice Department said, “assisted the victims in obtaining fraudulent visas and travel documents by funding false bank accounts, creating fictitious backgrounds and occupations, and instructing the victims to enter into fraudulent marriages to increase the likelihood that their visa applications would be approved.”

There are no specific statistics to show how victims of sex trafficking enter the United States, though experts note that many are already Americans or coerced to enter the country under false pretenses. Some may be brought over through an un-walled section of the border, but it's rare.

“Could it happen? Absolutely; anything could happen,” said Martina E. Vandenberg, president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center. “But is this what most of the cases look like? Absolutely not. And you know if you talk to people who handle these cases all the time, [and ask] 'have they ever seen a case like this.' No I haven't.”

Vandenberg says the wall won’t help the victims and it’s absurd to use them as pawns in justifying a wall.

“So the lawyers who are actually representing survivors — we don’t recognize this scenario except in Hollywood and porn movies,” Vandenberg says.