July 17, 2007

VII. Conclusion: The Need for a Legislative Solution

An estimated 1.6 million spouses and children of immigrants have suffered terribly because of US deportation policies. Families have had to sell their homes, children have had to undergo psychological treatment, and relatives have had to try to keep their families unified in spirit, even when US law keeps them physically apart. Refugees have been sent to places where they would likely be persecuted, even though the crimes they have committed are not sufficiently serious to warrant stripping them of protection. Immigrants also have been deported for relatively minor and non-violent crimes, raising the question of whether deportation is a proportionate penalty to impose on top of the criminal sentences they have already served.

When Congress set out to change immigration laws in 1996, it wanted to ensure that the worst non-citizen offenders were deported from the United States and to reduce the number of court cases brought by immigrants. But the changes were so overbroad as to impose permanent exile from the United States for non-violent, misdemeanor crimes-even in cases where the court determined that the crime was so minor that it did not warrant a prison sentence. Moreover, given the complexity and drastic consequences of the laws, the average number of appeals of deportation orders in each of the seven years after the 1996 laws took effect was nearly twice the average number of appeals in the prior seven years. And while Congress appeared to be focused on ensuring that illegal immigrants were swiftly deported from the United States, each year the mix of deportees includes tens of thousands of lawful permanent residents who have been in the country for years.

Ten years later, it is time for Congress to amend these laws, restore proportionality to the law, and eliminate their unintended consequences. A relatively simply set of amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act would do just that, by accomplishing the following three things: (1) restore hearings to weigh an immigrant's connections to the US, especially their family relationships, in deciding whether someone should be deported; (2) ensure that refugees who would likely face persecution upon return are allowed to remain in the US as long as they have not committed a particularly serious crime and do not pose a danger to the community of the United States; and (3) amend definitions in the current law to ensure that immigrants are not deported for minor (especially non-violent) offenses or for offenses that were not grounds for deportation at the time they were committed.

These limited and logical fixes to US immigration laws appeal to three core values traditionally embraced by the United States and reflected in international law: a fundamental respect for the protection of family unity, a justifiably proud history of protecting refugees from return to persecution, and a belief in fundamental fairness and proportionality in all governmental actions.

The United States has a proud tradition of welcoming immigrants. It is a country founded on notions of human rights and equal treatment. Like all nations, it offers important protections to families and to children, as members of society requiring special protections. Congress should reform immigration law to conform to these proud traditions and values instead of dismissing and undermining them on a regular basis in US deportation procedures.