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US: Deportation Splits Families

Legal Residents Often Deported for Nonviolent Offenses, National Data Show

(Washington, DC) - Three quarters of non-citizens deported from the United States over the last decade after serving criminal sentences were convicted of nonviolent offenses, and one in five had been in the country legally, sometimes for decades, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 64-page report, "Forced Apart (By the Numbers): Non-Citizens Deported Mostly for Nonviolent Offenses," uses data from 1997 to 2007 from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), to evaluate the effects of sweeping deportation laws passed in 1996. It shows that some of the most common crimes for which people were deported were relatively minor offenses, such as marijuana and cocaine possession or traffic offenses. Among legal immigrants who were deported, 77 percent had been convicted for such nonviolent crimes. Many had lived in the country for years and were forced apart from close family members.

"In 12 years of enforcing the 1996 deportation laws, no one bothered to ask whether ICE actually focused on the target group - undocumented immigrants convicted of serious, violent crimes," said Alison Parker, deputy director of the US Program of Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "We now know that a good number of people who are here legally and who are convicted of nonviolent offenses are regularly swept into the dragnet."

Human Rights Watch called on President Barack Obama and Congress to revise immigration laws to reduce the focus on deporting immigrants who are in the country legally. At a minimum, the report said, immigration law should be amended to permit legal immigrants facing deportation to ask a judge to allow them to remain in the United States when their crimes are relatively minor and their connections (especially family ties) to the United States are strong.

Immigrants who are deported for criminal activity typically are picked up for deportation at the completion of their sentences. What happens next is a summary hearing in which judges' hands are tied by the terms of the 1996 laws - they often cannot consider family relationships or positive contributions made by the immigrant. Often, they are only allowed to determine whether the person was a non-citizen convicted of a deportable offense.

Using Census data and figures released by the Pew Hispanic Center, the report estimates that just over 1 million family members have been separated from their loved ones by these deportations.

"We have to ask why, in a time of fiscal crisis, significant immigration enforcement funds are being spent on deporting legal residents who already have been punished for their crimes," Parker said. "Many of these people have lived in the country legally for decades, some have served in the military, others own businesses. And often, they are facing separation from family members, including children, who are citizens or legal residents."

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