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US: Senators’ Bipartisan Immigration Proposal a Promising Start

Further Development Required to End Rights Abuses

(Washington, DC) – The bipartisan framework for immigration reform released by eight United States senators on January 28, 2013, includes helpful language but needs more work on the details to protect basic rights.

Human Rights Watch expressed particular concern about the length of time that would be required before a person already in the United States could apply for permanent residency, and eventually citizenship. In addition, well-documented widespread abuses in the existing detention and deportation systems need to be addressed. And immigrant workers, who face a high risk of abuse and little redress, would need more specific protections. Human Rights Watch plans to release its own roadmap for comprehensive immigration reform later this week.

“After years of inaction, it’s heartening to see a bipartisan group of lawmakers agree on principles for wide-scale reform, including a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants already in the US,” said Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “But if Congress doesn’t stay focused on protecting basic rights as it works out the details, some of the worst abuses could go unaddressed.”

The bipartisan framework includes language that would strengthen the basic rights of unauthorized immigrants and their families. The particular attention it accords to immigrants brought to the United States as children and to agricultural workers appropriately recognizes their deeply held ties and contributions to their communities and the country. But some areas of the proposal raise concerns or require further development.

The proposed legalization program would put newly legalized immigrants at the “back of the line” for a “green card.” But the wait under the existing system already can be almost 20 years, because of the limited number of family-based immigration visas available. The wait could become even longer if legalization is to be contingent on the border being deemed secure.

Any reform should re-evaluate and update the number of family-based immigration visas available and eliminate the existing backlog if American families are to be protected in a meaningful way. The system should also protect families consisting of same-sex binational couples, whose relationships are not recognized under existing law.

Under the senators’ proposal, immigrants who have committed “serious crimes” will face immediate deportation and will be ineligible for legalization, raising concerns about how “serious crimes” will be defined. Under existing law, hundreds of thousands of long-term residents, including legal residents with minor or old criminal convictions, have been deemed to be “aggravated felons” and deported permanently with no opportunity to demonstrate family ties, rehabilitation, or other evidence that they are not a danger to the country.

Congress should define “serious crimes” fairly and narrowly for any legalization program. It should revise existing laws that address deportation of long-term residents with criminal convictions so that the right to family unity gets adequate consideration in every deportation decision.

The proposal also noted vaguely that workers’ rights should be protected. As documented in several Human Rights Watch reports, unauthorized workers, particularly in low-income industries like agriculture, are at high risk of workplace violations, including sexual abuse, and face enormous difficulties obtaining redress. There is likely to be great interest in expanding guestworker programs. But because guestworkers are particularly vulnerable to abuses, these programs should include specific measures to protect them, such as giving workers the right to change employers.

The proposal to delay full legalization until borders are considered secure also raises concerns. Efforts to secure the border in the past several years have resulted in serious abuses, and programs like Operation Streamline that rapidly prosecute and convict unauthorized migrants of federal crimes in packed courtrooms raise substantial due process concerns. Congress should ensure that border security measures are compliant with human rights and target the most serious threats.

The proposal also does not explicitly address ongoing problems in the existing deportation and detention system. Persons with mental disabilities and other vulnerable immigrants are regularly deported without counsel. Hundreds of thousands of people with no criminal records are detained in dangerous and punitive conditions, and detainees are transferred away from counsel and witnesses to far-flung detention centers. In addition, immigrant communities increasingly fear reporting crimes because of local police involvement in immigration enforcement.

“Immigration reform is unlikely to be either comprehensive or fair unless it addresses violations of rights in the current enforcement system,” Ginatta said. “Any plan for effective immigration reform needs to build on long-term experience and guarantee the basic rights of all people in the United States.”

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