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(Washington, DC) – The United States government should urgently reform its unfair immigration system to uphold the basic rights of non-citizens and provide a path to legal status for the country’s unauthorized immigrants, Human Rights Watch said in a policy briefing released today. While the Senate and White House proposals are a good start, more attention should be paid to ongoing abuses in enforcement policies.

The 19-page policy briefing, “Within Reach: A Roadmap for US Immigration Reform that Respects the Rights of All People,” lays out four essential principles that should anchor reform of the nation’s outdated and inefficient immigration system. It includes first-hand accounts from unauthorized immigrants whose lives have been shattered and families broken apart under current law. It also makes 26 concrete recommendations to the US government to prevent further suffering and abuses.

“The current US immigration system is unsustainable, practically, economically, and morally,” said Alison Parker, US program director at Human Rights Watch. “With a new presidential term and a new openness to discuss immigration reform, President Obama and Congress should seize this opportunity to create a fairer, more effective, and more humane immigration system.”

Drawing on 20 years of research, Human Rights Watch said that the US immigration system should:

• Respect and protect families;
• Protect immigrants from workplace violations and crimes;
• Provide a legalization process that effectively protects the basic rights of the estimated
  11 million unauthorized immigrants; and
• Focus enforcement efforts on genuine threats and protect due process rights for all.

Among its recommendations, Human Rights Watch said that the US government should update the system of family-based immigration by granting immigration judges the power to consider family unity as a major factor in all deportation decisions. The government should also increase protections for immigrant victims of workplace violations and crimes, including expansion of temporary visa programs for people pursuing valid claims for redress. The immigration system should also improve protection of due process rights of non-citizens, including curbing the use of immigration detention and re-evaluating ramped-up enforcement programs.

Any legalization process for unauthorized immigrants should be clear, straightforward, and have fair eligibility criteria. Immigrants of limited means, as well as particularly vulnerable immigrants such as children, the elderly, and people with disabilities, should be able to access the program. The legalization program should also recognize the special ties of those who have lived in the US from a young age.

“The injustices of the US immigration system have had devastating consequences for millions of people – not just unauthorized immigrants, but their families, their employers, and their communities,” Parker said. “By creating a fairer system, the US can better regulate migration and uphold the rule of law.”


“Within Reach” includes the stories of unauthorized immigrants struggling to live and work within the current immigration system. A few are summarized below.

  • “Alicia S.” was arrested for an unpaid driving ticket and deported, despite having two US-born daughters, including one with a serious medical condition. It has been two-and-a-half years since she has seen her daughters. She has tried to get back into the US three times, desperate to reunite with her children, but she was caught, and now has a criminal record for the federal misdemeanor of illegal entry.
  • “Monica V.” had been working at a turkey processing plant in Georgia for three years when she was injured at her workplace. “When I had the accident they started to disregard me,” she said. “I was no longer good for them.” She was fired for not having work authorization. Years later, after being injured on the job at another poultry plant, Monica was fired again. A supervisor indicated she could have her job back – if she had sex with him.
  • “Brenda R.” lived for years in Dallas, Texas with her permanent-resident husband and US-born daughter, though she herself was unauthorized. She returned to her native Mexico for the funerals of her two adult sons, who had been murdered. When she tried to return to Dallas, she was arrested, criminally prosecuted, and convicted of the federal misdemeanor of illegal entry. She remains in immigration detention.
  • “Chet,” 67, and “Wei,” 59, of Taiwan, have been committed partners for two decades, though Wei is in the US without legal status and cannot become a permanent resident because immigration law does not recognize same-sex unions. Chet said, “We live day to day praying that the immigration laws will change and we can live together in peace without the constant fear that something will happen that will cause [Wei’s] deportation.”


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