(Washington, DC) – The United States House of Representatives should reject an expansive immigration enforcement bill that would worsen existing abuses within the US immigration system.

House Resolution (HR) 2278, the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act (or “SAFE Act”), passed the House Judiciary Committee on June 18, 2013, by a vote of 20 to 15. It now may be referred to another committee or get sent to the full House of Representatives for consideration.

“There is nothing ‘safe’ about the SAFE Act,” said Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “It will only instill fear in immigrants, making them less likely to call police for help or to report a crime, putting everyone in the community at risk.”

HR 2278 gives state and local law enforcement officers the power to investigate, identify, apprehend, arrest, and detain unauthorized immigrants for the purposes of enforcing federal immigration laws. Under the bill, if any state prohibits their police from using such immigration enforcement powers, it will be denied federal law enforcement funding.

Human Rights Watch has documented the significant harm to local communities when local law enforcement is required to enforce federal immigration law, rather than focus on state and local crimes. Immigrants in Alabama interviewed for the 2011 report, “No Way to Live,” said they had not reported crimes to the police after Alabama’s immigrant law, popularly known as HB 56, empowered local police to ask about a person’s immigration status. 

One woman said that when her friend, a Honduran immigrant, was beaten and robbed, she called the police and asked if they would ask about the victim’s immigration status if he came in to report the crime. When they replied, “Yes,” she hung up. She told Human Rights Watch, “Before, you could call the police and feel safe. Now there’s no safety for Hispanics.”

Similarly, the 2012 report “Cultivating Fear” includes interviews with farmworker who said they feared reporting even crimes as egregious as workplace sexual assault, due to the increasing involvement of local police in federal immigration enforcement. “Monica V.,” for example, said, “If I had called the police, they wouldn’t have helped me because I’m undocumented.”

The bill further makes unlawful presence in the United States a federal crime punishable by six months in prison, essentially criminalizing the presence of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US. Under HR 2278, a person who overstayed a tourist visa by one day would be committing a federal crime.

The bill also strips the Department of Homeland Security of the ability to exercise discretion in deciding whether a person should be released on bond or detained at taxpayer expense while their case is pending. And the bill allows for the indefinite detention of immigrants, giving the secretary of homeland security the sole discretion in the matter by certifying that the immigrant threatens public safety. Such arbitrary and indefinite detention violates US obligations under international human rights law.

HR 2278 also broadens the definition of an aggravated felony, making more crimes deportable offenses even if they are misdemeanors under state law. HR 2278 also requires mandatory detention for any non-citizen convicted of driving while intoxicated, even if the crime is a misdemeanor under state law.

“In the eyes of SAFE Act supporters, all unauthorized immigrants are dangerous criminals,” Ginatta said. “Such a one-dimensional and blatantly false characterization is not worthy of further consideration. The bill should never reach the House floor.”