Senate Bill Imperfect but Important First Step
June 27, 2013
It is far past time for the United States to address a broken immigration system that divides thousands of families and denies due process. In passing this bill, as flawed as it may be, the Senate has taken an important first step.
Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director

(Washington, DC, June 27, 2013) – A landmark immigration reform bill that grants legal status to millions of people and reduces their vulnerability to human rights abuses has passed an important hurdle, Human Rights Watch said today.

Senate Bill 744 (the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act) creates a path to citizenship for most of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States, but does so by linking their legalization to an unprecedented expansion of southern border security measures. The United States Senate approved the bill by a vote of 68-32 on the afternoon on June 27, 2013.

“It is far past time for the United States to address a broken immigration system that divides thousands of families and denies due process,” said Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “In passing this bill, as flawed as it may be, the Senate has taken an important first step.”

The Senate bill includes several provisions that would keep families with mixed immigration status together. The bill allows immigration judges to stop a deportation proceeding if it would result in hardship to a US citizen parent, spouse, or child. The bill also gives the Homeland Security secretary discretion to allow some people already removed from the country but with strong family ties in the US to return and apply for legalization.

While granting temporary legal status to most unauthorized immigrants living in the United States, the bill denies that opportunity to many non-citizens with criminal convictions. It would provide no opportunity to provide evidence of mitigating circumstances, such as whether the crime occurred in the distant past and the immigrant can demonstrate rehabilitation. It also keeps in place provisions that mandate the deportation of non-citizens with criminal convictions, even for minor offenses, without the opportunity for a full hearing before a judge, which has already resulted in the permanent separation of tens of thousands of families.

The bill takes some steps toward better aligning immigration enforcement and detention practices with human rights requirements. It requires the government to appoint counsel for children and people with mental disabilities in immigration proceedings. It allows for a reduction in the use of mandatory immigration detention and restricts the use of solitary confinement in detention. It also eliminates the arbitrary one-year filing deadline for asylum applicants, which is contrary to requirements under international human rights law.

Unfortunately, the Senate proposal also funds a major expansion of criminal prosecutions for crossing the border. As Human Rights Watch has recently reported, these prosecutions often fail to target genuine threats to public safety or national security and impose tremendous human and financial costs.

To garner additional votes in the Senate, the bill was also amended to include a border security “surge,” as described by the amendment’s proponents. The amendment funds 20,000 additional Border Patrol agents along the southern border and the construction of 350 additional miles of border fencing. Only after these and other border security requirements are met would immigrants with provisional immigrant status be allowed to apply for lawful permanent resident status.

The bill now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration, where it faces an uncertain future, Human Rights Watch said. The House has signaled that it may not consider the Senate bill but instead pass its own set of smaller reform measures, which might not include a path to legal status.

“Immigration reform that ignores the legal status of 11 million people is no reform at all,” Ginatta said. “The House should move comprehensively to address this sprawling system of abuse.”