The U.S. Congress should reject legislation that would treat a wide range of immigrants as criminals and subject some to groundless arrests, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to U.S. legislators today.
On Thursday, April 22, the Senate Immigration Subcommittee will consider the Homeland Security Enhancement (HSEA) Act. The proposed law—similar to the Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal (CLEAR) Act under consideration in the House—would authorize state and local police officers to investigate, arrest, and detain non-citizens whom they decide are “unlawfully present.”
“Police officers would be hard-pressed to accurately determine a person’s legal status given the extreme complexity of federal immigration law,” said Alison Parker, senior researcher in Human Rights Watch’s U.S. Program. “The proposed legislation would place huge burdens on local police, and it would subject immigrants to unfair arrest.”
For example, a police officer might stop a foreign student, ask to see her passport, find an expired visa inside and make an on-the-spot judgment that she is unlawfully present in the United States. But that same student might well have a valid student visa form on file with the federal government, granting her permission to remain in the country for another year. Under the proposed laws, however, the student could end up arrested and detained alongside common criminals in a local jail.
Human Rights Watch agrees with the local police departments and officials that oppose this legislation. Many law enforcement officials recognize that the additional burden of immigration enforcement responsibilities would drive a wedge between them and the communities they are supposed to protect.
Another disturbing aspect of the proposed laws is they fail to address whether detained non-citizens would be granted hearings, and if so, which court would hear their cases. In the federal system, non-citizens detained on immigration charges have hearings before judges who specialize in immigration law and procedure.
“The proposed legislation would create a two-tiered system of justice. Immigrants detained in the federal system would have the right to a hearing, but those arrested by local police would have no guarantees of judicial review,” Parker said. “The potential for abuse is rife.”
In addition to arbitrary arrests and detentions, Human Rights Watch also warned that handing state and local officials such powers will yield:
• Disproportionate fines imposed on undocumented immigrants in amounts that are too harsh given the impoverished conditions of many immigrants;
• Unjust and arbitrary deprivations of property since the proposed legislation would allow state and local officials to take the property of persons whom they have decided are unlawfully in the United States;
• No remedy for violations of victims’ civil rights because the laws give officers immunity from any lawsuits alleging civil rights violations;
• Increased vulnerability of immigrant women and children to domestic abuse since the legislation might keep immigrants from contacting police about abuses they have suffered for fear that they—or undocumented relatives who may live with them—will be arrested;
• Unchecked authority to deport immigrants without hearings because, on its face, the CLEAR Act would provide state and local officers with an unfettered power to deport non-citizens. This power could potentially be used to deport refugees who have entered the country without valid documents to a place where they fear persecution—a serious violation of their rights.