May 23, 2011
Congress should certainly heed the president's call to enact comprehensive, practical, and fair immigration reform. But as a leader, President Obama should start by doing all that he can to minimize abuses and protect the rights of those in the system as it is today.
Grace Meng, US program researcher at Human Rights Watch

When President Obama made a renewed call for immigration reform on May 10, he rightly noted that the system is "broken." The president was also right in noting that the system must ultimately be fixed through comprehensive legislative reform, action that requires members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, to take responsibility for their complacency in perpetuating a broken system.

But in the meantime, the inaction of Congress does not absolve the president from his responsibility to take steps within his power to fix at least some of the system's serious problems.

The following stories are not isolated ones.

  • Paulette F., an immigrant who fled Guinea to escape female genital mutilation, was put into immigration detention and unnecessarily transferred over 2,000 miles to another detention center, causing her to lose her attorney in Cleveland.
  • Diane O., who was 17 years old when she became a victim of trafficking and rape, was put into immigration detention, where she had no access to mental health services, further aggravating her trauma.

As Human Rights Watch has documented in numerous reports, U.S. procedures for deportation and detention are rife with serious due process shortcomings and other human rights violations.

Administrative action alone cannot address all of the ways in which the human rights of these immigrants and thousands of others have been compromised. But the executive branch does have significant power to make changes on its own. The administration could immediately exercise its prosecutorial discretion to terminate proceedings and stop deportation for legal residents with convictions for minor offenses. It could minimize the transfer of immigration detainees all over the country, as ICE said it would do in a letter to Human Rights Watch over a year ago. And it could provide better training for immigration agents to identify people who have been trafficked, so they are treated as victims and not criminals.

Most of all, the administration could shift resources into administrative reform rather than the deportation of hundreds of thousands of people through a system it acknowledges is seriously dysfunctional. President Obama has actively pushed Secure Communities, which supposedly allows ICE to identify and deport serious criminals who are not citizens by connecting its database to those of local law enforcement. But over 50% percent of those identified and deported by Secure Communities thus far had no criminal convictions or had convictions for Level 3 offenses, which can include something as minor as driving without a license.

All over the country, immigrant communities report that calls to the police to report an incident like domestic violence do not lead to protection and justice but to deportation. The administration's own concerted actions have led to the increased deportation of "decent people with the best of intentions," as the president described them.

Congress should certainly heed the president's call to enact comprehensive, practical, and fair immigration reform. But as a leader, President Obama should start by doing all that he can to minimize abuses and protect the rights of those in the system as it is today.