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The mandatory deportation of legal immigrants convicted of a crime, even a minor one, has separated an estimated 1.6 million children and adults, including US citizens and lawful permanent residents, from their non-citizen family members, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

US immigration officials have deported 672,593 immigrants because of criminal convictions since 1997, after Congress passed legislation making deportation a mandatory penalty for a long list of crimes, including minor, non-violent offenses committed years before the laws went into effect. Many of those deported arrived in the US as children and were lawful permanent residents who had lived legally in the country for decades.

“The laws are not only cruel in their rigidity, they are senseless,” said Alison Parker, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch’s US Program and author of the report. “How do you explain to a child that her father has been sent thousands of miles away and can never come home simply because he forged a check?”

Prior to 1997, immigrants who committed a crime were permitted to go before an immigration judge, who could exercise his or her discretion in imposing penalties. However, the legislation Congress passed in 1996 precluded immigration judges from considering whether deportation would be excessively harsh in light of the immigrants’ family relationships, community ties, US military service records, or the possibility of persecution if returned to their country of origin. The deportation takes place after the non-citizen has completed the terms of the sentence imposed for the crime.

The 88-page report, “Forced Apart: Families Separated and Immigrants Harmed by US Deportation Policy,” is the first comprehensive assessment of the deportation of non-citizens with criminal convictions and the impact on families and communities in the US. The deportation cases documented in the report include:

• A 52-year-old man who lived in the US as a lawful permanent resident for 40 years, served in the US military, has four US citizen sons, and was convicted of possession and sale of small amounts of drugs;

• A father of three US citizen children convicted of breaking into a car and stealing a $10 bottle of eye drops from a drug store;

• A young man who had lived in the US legally as a refugee from Laos since the age of four.

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data included in the report, 64.6 percent of immigrants deported for crimes in 2005 had been convicted of non-violent offenses, including non-violent theft offenses such as shoplifting; some 20.9 percent were deported for offenses involving violence against people; and 14.7 percent were deported for “other” crimes.

Human Rights Watch used census data on immigrant family size to estimate the number of spouses and children left behind in the US after their spouse or parent had been deported because of a criminal conviction.

Reform of the 1996 laws was not included in the comprehensive immigration legislation Congress considered this year. However, in January 2007, Congressman Jose Serrano introduced a bill (HR 1176), which would allow immigration judges to consider the interests of US citizen children during deportation hearings. The bill would not, however, protect spousal relationships or other links immigrants have to the US, such as longstanding lawful residence or service in the US armed forces.

“Most members of the European Union and other major democracies take family relationships and other links to the country of immigration into account before a final deportation decision is made,” Parker said. “But immigration judges’ hands are tied in the US; there is nothing they can do to protect families or to acknowledge the many contributions non-citizens have made to their communities or the nation.”

Two immigrants deported because of criminal convictions, Wayne Smith and Hugo Armendáriz, have brought a claim against the US government before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. Smith and Armendáriz, both of whom have wives and children in the US, lived in the country as lawful permanent residents for 25 and 28 years respectively, before their deportations for drug offenses to Trinidad and Mexico.

A hearing in the case, for which Human Rights Watch submitted an amicus curiae brief prepared by the Stanford Immigrants Rights Clinic, will be held this Friday July 20, at the Inter-American Commission in Washington, DC.

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