Under legislation approved ten years ago, non-citizen residents of the U.S. who commit certain categories of crimes are deported after they serve whatever sentence the courts impose for their offenses. Every year, tens of thousands of legal, long-term residents, many with green cards and with U.S. citizen spouses, parents and children are placed in deportation proceedings.

Congress faces an uphill battle in reaching resolution on immigration reform, not least because to achieve any lasting success it needs to confront a monster of its own making, the so-called “criminal alien.” The term evokes murderous subhumans. In fact, it embraces tens of thousands of non-citizen men and women legally in the U.S. – indeed many like Roberto who may have lived their whole lives in the U.S. – who commit offenses that may be no more serious than shoplifting or tax evasion.

Under legislation approved ten years ago, non-citizen residents of the U.S. who commit certain categories of crimes are deported after they serve whatever sentence the courts impose for their offenses. Every year, tens of thousands of legal, long-term residents, many with green cards and with U.S. citizen spouses, parents and children are placed in deportation proceedings.

Neither Congressional lawmakers debating immigration reform nor the American public know precisely who is being deported and for what crimes. The government merely tabulates the total number of criminal aliens—a category that includes crimes from petty theft to murder. In each of the two most recent years for which statistics are available (2003 and 2004), upwards of 80,000 criminal aliens were deported.

They faced mandatory detention and lifetime banishment from a country in which they may have lived for decades, building homes and families, running businesses, serving in the U.S. military. Fewer than half had lawyers and none had the right to appointed counsel. For most, their convictions prevented immigration judges from even considering whether there were compelling reasons for them to remain in the U.S.

Each day, deportations conducted in this way separate U.S. citizen children from their parents, spouses from each other, and generally disrupt the fabric of American communities.

When the procedures are so summary, and the rights at stake are so important, it is deeply disturbing that the Department of Homeland Security has never publicly disclosed the details of who exactly is being deported from the U.S. With the numbers so large, perhaps they prefer Americans to assume that criminal aliens are the monsters they sound like.

But better information about who these people really are could contribute to better immigration reforms. Legislation should allow for proportional balancing between the government’s interest in effecting deportation and its respect for an immigrant’s allegiance to the United States. Its interest in deportation is stronger if the non-citizen is a murderer and weaker if he shoplifted toys for his children at Christmas, while respect for his allegiance to the country is stronger if he has lived in the U.S. for thirty years legally or served in the U.S. military than if he entered the country just one year ago.

Answering the basic question of which immigrants the United States is already deporting, and why it is deporting them, might inspire Congressional reforms aligned with fundamental American values, like fairness in governmental actions, respect for family unity, and an awareness of the unique role immigrants have played in the history of the United States.

Alison Parker, Esq.
Senior Researcher
U.S. Program
Human Rights Watch

Prof. Daniel Kanstroom, Esq.
Associate Director
Center for Human Rights
and International Justice
Boston College