I. Summary

Antonio Cerami came to the United States with his family when he was 12 years old. He entered the country as a lawful permanent resident. In 1984, Antonio met Cristina, who is a US citizen, and they were married in 1992. Antonio became stepfather to her four children, and the couple had a son of their own. A unionized dockworker in Chicago, Antonio also worked part-time in the evenings and weekends to provide financial support to his family. The couple purchased a home in the Chicago suburbs and sent their children to local public schools. Cristina told a Human Rights Watch researcher,

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“I stayed home until our son was about three years old. Antonio worked two jobs to take care of us. Then, I also got a job in an office and everything was good …. We were fine, we were just a normal—not a rich—family, but very comfortable, right? I went to work, he went to work, we hardly ever saw each other because we worked for 10 hours. But we had a plain old normal life. We moved to a [new suburb] after a few years because … there were better schools and we wanted a home where [each of our] kids could have his own room.”1

Then, in 2003, Antonio decided to take his young son and wife on a three-week trip to Italy for a niece’s wedding. Upon their return to O’Hare airport, Antonio was taken into custody in connection with a conviction he had received 19 years earlier, for attempting with an accomplice to rob a pizza parlor. Antonio had been sentenced to six years in prison, and released after three years for good behavior. He had complied with all conditions of his parole by reporting once a month to a parole officer.

Antonio was ordered deported back to Italy. Cristina explained what happened when she was called to testify at the immigration court:

When I begged the judge not to take Tony away, the judge said, “You have a job, you can work.” Well what happened to America and family unity? What happened to that? Does that not mean anything? No child left behind? Mr. Bush? We pay taxes. My husband paid taxes. He was here for 30 years [before his deportation] …. My daughter, you should have seen the way she was crying … when I saw her face in court, that was a nightmare. He was her dad. He raised her since she was five years old …. My whole family was there. We’re decent people. It was a very traumatic experience for my whole family, but mostly for my kids.2

Cristina’s youngest son had to undergo counseling after his father was deported. She explained, “He’s a good boy, but he started using drugs.” The loss of Antonio’s income and expensive legal fees took their toll on the family. Cristina lost the house in the suburbs. Her oldest daughter moved in with her boyfriend’s family and, Cristina explained,

My daughter had problems. I had problems. I cried every day. Right now we don’t really have a home. We’re living with friends and family. John lives with a friend, Jessica lives with another friend, Danny’s with his uncle and Angela lives with another friend. They have really split us up.3

Unfortunately, the Ceramis are not alone. Hundreds of thousands of families throughout the United States are being forced apart by punitive and inflexible US deportation policies. Regularly, legal immigrants who have lived in the country for decades with family members who are citizens or lawful permanent residents are being deported from the United States.

Contrary to popular belief, US deportation policy did not become more severe after the terrorist attacks on September 11; instead, drastic changes made in 1996 have been at work for more than a decade, devastating communities across the nation. Also, contrary to popular belief, these policies do not target only undocumented immigrants—they apply to long-term lawful permanent residents (or green card holders) as well.  When these members of the community of the United States are deported, their absence is felt because shops close, entrepreneurs lose their business partners, tax revenues are lost, and, most tragically, US citizen and lawful permanent resident children and spouses are forced to confront life without their fathers, mothers, children, husbands, or wives.

Deportation is a necessary part of every country’s enforcement of its immigration laws. To be sure, the non-citizens featured in this report are being deported for a reason—they have violated the criminal laws of the United States, making them subject to deportation after they have finished serving their criminal sentences. However, many immigrants being deported from the United States are a far cry from the worst and most violent offenders. Non-citizens have been forced into permanent exile for non-violent misdemeanor offenses, even if they served a short sentence with a perfect record of good conduct. As shown in the case of Mr. Cerami, the 1996 laws have also had sweeping retroactive effects: a criminal offense committed in the 1980s that did not trigger deportation at that time can now render a non-citizen deportable, even if the non-citizen served a prison sentence, successfully completed all terms of probation, and has since lived, worked, and raised a family in the community without ever running into trouble with the law again. 

Not only have deportation laws become more punitive—increasing the types of crimes that can permanently sever an immigrant’s ties to the United States—but there are fewer ways for immigrants to appeal for leniency. Hearings that used to happen in which a judge would consider immigrants’ ties to the United States, most especially their family relationships, were stopped in 1996 for those convicted of a long list of crimes. There are no exceptions available, no matter how long an individual has lived in the United States and no matter how much his spouse and children depend on him for their livelihood and emotional support.

A retired immigration judge shared the frustration he felt when he was unable to prevent deportation because of the strict requirements of the changed laws:

My 30-year career with the Department of Justice has been exciting and stimulating. Each case I hear is a life story. I have been able to grant refuge to persons who have a genuine fear of persecution. I have been able to unite or re-unite families. On the other hand, in many cases I have had to deal with the frustration of not being able to grant relief to someone because of the precise requirements of the statute, even though on a personal level he appears to be worthy of some immigration benefit.4

In the United States between 1997 and 2005 (the most recent year for which data are publicly available), 672,593 non-citizens have been deported for criminal offenses.5 The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has only recently disclosed general statistics on the criminal convictions that formed the basis for removal orders. In 2005, 64.6 percent of the immigrants deported were removed for non-violent offenses like drug convictions, illegal entry, and larceny; 20.9 percent were removed for violent offenses; and 14.7 percent were removed for “other” crimes. 

Unfortunately, we have no idea whether and how many of those 672,593 non-citizens were lawful permanent residents or otherwise in the country with legal permission, and how many were undocumented. There are also no hard data on their family relationships. However, based on the 2000 US Census, we estimate that approximately 1.6 million spouses and children living in the United States were separated from their parent, husband, or wife because of these deportations.

Human rights law recognizes that the privilege of living in any country as a non-citizen may be conditional upon obeying that country’s laws. However, a country like the United States cannot withdraw that privilege without protecting the human rights of the immigrants it previously allowed to enter. Unfortunately, that is precisely what US immigration law fails to do—it gives no opportunity to immigration judges to balance the individual’s crime against his or her family relationships, length of time in the US, military service, economic ties to the US, likelihood of persecution, or lack of connections to the country of origin.

Without being able to raise these issues in their immigration hearings, people’s rights to have these factors taken into account are violated. In this respect, the United States is far out of step with international human rights standards and the practices of other nations, particularly nations that it considers to be its peers. For example, of all the governments in western Europe, the United States joins only Luxembourg in not weighing family ties or providing for some proportionality analysis in all of its deportation proceedings.

In this report, Human Rights Watch charts the various devastating ways in which changes to immigration laws passed 10 years ago have impacted America’s families. We reiterate a theme that US President George W. Bush has repeatedly recognized, including in an April 9, 2007 statement about proposed comprehensive immigration reform legislation: “[F]amily values d[o] not stop at the Rio Grande River.”6

Human Rights Watch calls on the President and Congress, as a part of comprehensive immigration reform or other legislation, to hold true to those words. The United States should reinstate hearings that would allow immigrants facing deportation the chance to ask a judge to allow them to remain in the United States when their crimes are relatively minor and their connections (including their family ties) to the United States are strong. We ask Congress to take a second look at the kinds of crimes that render people deportable, in order to prevent permanent and mandatory banishment from the United States for relatively minor non-violent crimes like theft or drug possession. Providing for proportionality in deportation and protecting family unity are essential to a just and fair immigration policy, and this cannot be accomplished without amending US immigration law to allow for relatively simple balancing hearings.

1 Human Rights Watch interview with Cerami family, Chicago, Illinois, February 5, 2006.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 James P. Vandello, “Perspective of an Immigration Judge,” Denver University Law Review, vol. 80 (2003), p. 775.

5 Immigration and Naturalization Service, “Enforcement Operations, Aliens Removed by Criminal Status and Region and Selected Country of Nationality,” Statistical Yearbook 1997, Table 65 (FY 1997), p. 185; Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2005, Table 41 and Table 42 (FY 1998-2005), (accessed May 31, 2007).

6 The White House, “President Bush Discusses Comprehensive Immigration Reform in Yuma, Arizona,” US Border Patrol, Yuma Station Headquarters, Yuma, Arizona, April 9, 2007, (accessed May 30, 2007).