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Enforcement vs. Immigration Reform

One day after the Department of Homeland Security announced record-high deportations of illegal immigrants, ColorLines has a good story about some of the problems of heavy enforcement — particularly under a system that strongly favors deportation. Framed by the story of a legal resident who was deported for telling border guards he was a citizen — he said he misspoke and told them he had a green card minutes later — the piece explains how immigrants are harmed by the harsh laws and the Obama administration’s effort to appear tough on immigration to broker a bipartisan immigration reform deal.

Shahed Hossain, who had lived legally in the U.S. for 10 years, was deported in 2007 after more than a year in a detention facility. He was stopped at the border and told guards he was a citizen before backtracking, ColorLines reported. Under the 1996 Immigration Reform and Individual Responsibility Act, it is illegal for any immigrants — even those with green cards — to claim to be citizens:

The law was intended to prevent undocumented immigrations from lying to get a job or enter the country without a visa. It wasn’t supposed to target green card holders like Hossain, but as with all of the beefed-up enforcement initiatives federal officials have launched since then, the law is a blunt tool. So Hossain was charged that day with making a false claim to U.S. citizenship. The charge triggers automatic deportation.

Since the mid-90s, the immigration removal system has become increasingly standardized to the point of removing nearly all discretion from immigration judges. While judges previously could cancel deportation based on the individual’s circumstances, current law makes it next to impossible to do so.

Judges also face a monumental number of cases: In mid-June, a record of 247,922 cases were awaiting resolution in immigration courts, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. These cases are sometimes dealt with in mass hearings, NPR reported in September. As programs such as Secure Communities and Operation Streamline net more illegal immigrants, backlogs and heavy caseloads seem likely to exacerbate the problem of a conveyor-belt judicial process.

At the same time, Democrats have stepped up immigration enforcement in an effort to compromise with Republicans. But comprehensive immigration reform has yet to appear, and immigrant rights groups argue it is the only way to resolve the problems within the current immigration enforcement system:

“If we are going to be continuing to escalate what we call enforcement, or mass deportation,” says Michelle Fei, director of the Immigrant Defense Project in New York City, “many … who are coming forward to register or to get legalized might actually land in deportation. Enforcement will undercut the promise of reform. We don’t want a system that is rounding people up and deporting people without due process.”

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