A criminal justice advocacy group is prepared to sue the federal government if President Obama signs into law a measure requiring child-sex offenders to be identified as such on their passports — a move they say is as hypocritical for a president pushing for broad criminal justice reform.
The House and Senate this week resolved differences in versions of the bill, known as the “International Megan’s Law,” which is meant to make it harder for pedophiles to travel abroad. The final version requires that individuals convicted of sex offenses involving minors obtain a “unique identifier” on their passports that would alert immigration authorities in other countries of their prior convictions.
“This is the first time in the history of our country that any American citizen will have a unique identifier on their passport,” said lawyer Janice Bellucci, who as the president of the group California Reform Sex Offender Laws has brought prior lawsuits challenging sex offender laws. “Who is the next group? Is it going to be Muslims if Donald Trump becomes president?”
Though the White House has not yet indicated whether Mr. Obama intends to sign or veto the law, Ms. Bellucci said her organization is preparing to mount a legal challenge if it is adopted.
“We believe it violates so many constitutional rights of our citizens, we just cannot ignore it,” she said.
The measure was sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith, New Jersey Republican, who has been pushing for the legislation for eight years. If signed into law by Mr. Obama, the legislation would also require any registered sex offender planning to travel abroad to inform law enforcement officials at least 21 days in advance; authorize a division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to notify destination countries of those offenders’ intended travel; and to allow for information sharing with other countries to identify foreign nationals who are sex offenders planning to travel to the U.S.
SEE ALSO: Operation Choke Point asphyxiating payday lenders
“It is imperative and long overdue that the United States take the child protection lessons it has learned domestically with the successful notification systems first created by Megan’s Laws and expand them globally to prevent convicted U.S. sex offenders from harming children abroad,” said Mr. Smith in a statement released Monday following the passage of the law.
The law is named for Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who in 1994 was sexually assaulted and killed by a convicted sex offender who lived across the street from her family.
Over the last decade, lawmakers and courts have had a mixed take on sex offender laws. Several states, including Florida, Oklahoma and Louisiana require sex offenders to obtain a special driver’s license that identifies them as such. Meanwhile restrictions on where offenders could live have been struck down by courts in California, Massachusetts and New York.
Given the commitment that both Congress and the president have professed over the last year for criminal justice reform, advocates see the passage of the federal sex offender law as backsliding.
For 29-year-old Josh Gravens, who said he was placed on the Texas sex offender registry for an incident that occurred when he was 13, the stigma has already led to bouts of homelessness and trouble keeping a job. He fears that a “scarlet letter” on his passport will only marginalize him further when he travels.
“I believe that if the president really means what he says about criminal justice, he will veto the bill,” said Mr. Gravens, who through his advocacy group Organize Justice, has pushed for broad criminal justice reform. “And I’m watching with anticipation that he keeps his promises.”
SEE ALSO: Obama mosque visit comes as Muslim fear of violent backlash increases
An official from the State Department, which would oversee the passport demarcation, declined to comment Wednesday on the legislation.
But according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office, the State Department in 2008 issued 4,500 passports to sex offenders of all categories. The State Department noted at the time however that there was “no evidence that the offenders used their passports to commit sex offenses abroad.”