Attendees of the Navajo Nation Public Safety Summit, held in Twin Arrows, Arizona, on January 29, 2018. Photo: Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President

Bill to help tribes with AMBER Alert systems set to clear another hurdle

The House passed S.772, the AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act, by a voice vote shortly before 5pm Eastern on February 26, 2018. The bill is also being titled as the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act.

A bill to help tribes develop AMBER Alert systems on their reservations is getting closer to final passage on Capitol Hill.

The House will take up S.772, the AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act, on Monday afternoon, according to the House majority leader's schedule. It's being considered under a suspension of the rules, meaning it is non-controversial and will likely be passed by a unanimous vote.

Action follows a renewed effort by Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Arizona), the sponsor of H.R.2666, a companion version of the bill. His guest at the State of the Union last month was Pamela Foster, the mother of an 11-year-old girl who was kidnapped and murdered on the Navajo Nation.

"Since the tragic death of my daughter, Ashlynne Mike, I have been fighting for this protection to be enacted into law , and I am thankful that it is moving through the legislative process," Foster said in advance of the January 30 speech.

"No child – regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, or birthplace – should be outside the protection and jurisdiction of the AMBER Alert system,” added Biggs.

Ashlynne and her younger brother were abducted on the New Mexico portion of the Navajo Nation in May 2016 but the tribe was unable to inform the public immediately about the missing children because it lacked an AMBER Alert system at the time. Instead the alert had to be sent out, following a delay, through the state.

While Ashlynne's brother eventually found his way to safety, it was too late for his sister. She was sexually assaulted and murdered near Shiprock, New Mexico, by a tribal citizen who has been sentenced to life in prison for the crime.

The tribe, whose reservation spans three states and is the largest in the nation, has since finalized the process to implement an AMBER Alert system. But the rest of Indian Country would benefit once Congress takes S.772 over the finish line.

If the bill becomes law, tribes would eligible for federal AMBER Alert grants for the first time in the history of the program. Currently, grants are limited to states.

"According to FBI statistics, more than 7,500 Native American children are listed as missing in the United States today," said Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the sponsor of S.772. "We must protect the most vulnerable individuals in Indian Country, and this legislation is an important step forward in that effort.”

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Arizona) and Pamela Foster, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, discuss the AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act on January 30, 2018. Photo: Rep. Andy Biggs

The Senate passed S.772 by unanimous consent on November 29, 2017. It too was considered non-controversial.

The version that is up for consideration in the House has been slightly modified so it appears it would have to go back to the Senate for one final vote before it can be sent to President Donald Trump for his signature.

S.772 is among several bipartisan tribal safety measure that are under consideration in Congress. They include S.1870, the Securing Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victim Empowerment Act, which sets aside $150 million in federal funds every year for victims of crime in Indian Country, and S.1953, a bill to reauthorize the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010.

At a business meeting earlier this month, Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which advanced S.772, S.1870 and S.1953, counted "no fewer than six legislative bills" that would help tribes address key safety issues in their communities. Udall is a co-sponsor of S.772.

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