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Opinion: Let’s Fix ’96 & Stop the Deportation Machinery

October 1, 2011

Written by Michelle Fei, Co-Director, Immigrant Defense Project

Fifteen Years Too Many 

On September 30, 1996, President Clinton signed into effect the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), one of two draconian immigration laws enacted that year. These laws compounded the injustices of the criminal justice system with an inflexible immigration regime that denies due process to nearly all of those ensnared. Today, on the fifteenth anniversary of IIRIRA, we at the Immigrant Defense Project mourn the loss of millions of immigrants from their families and communities, and call for renewed efforts to overhaul these laws.

The Obama Administration’s announcement about prosecutorial discretion last month only serves to further highlight the need to seriously repair our deportation system. We are glad that this announcement will benefit some immigrants, albeit only a small fraction of those at risk of deportation. We must fight to continue to get Immigration and Customs Enforcement to exercise its power to keep immigrant families and communities united and to use this power broadly.

But the reality is that prosecutorial discretion is only a band-aid measure that diverts attention from the fundamental unfairness of our deportation system and obscures the significant flaws of a criminal injustice system in which the odds are stacked significantly against low-income, of color, and immigrant populations. It fails to restore the fundamental rights that have been stripped from immigrants facing deportation. It does nothing to stop the mass funneling of immigrants from police stations, jails, and prisons into detention and deportation. And coupled with ICE’s intensified efforts to focus deportations on so-called criminal aliens, it does not even attempt to reduce the destruction of immigrant families across the country.

With prosecutorial discretion as its cover, ICE has now inflicted on us Operation Cross Check, through which it arrested nearly 3,000 immigrants this week. This frightening roundup was capped by Director John Morton’s flippant reassurance that “[t]hese are not people who are making a positive contribution to their communities…They are not the kind of people we want walking our streets.”

We can argue about the reliability of ICE’s statistics, the seriousness of the offenses allegedly committed by those arrested, the “rehabilitation” that many of these immigrants likely have demonstrated or potentially could have given needed resources. All those are, to be sure, critical points that deserve extensive debate.

But perhaps what strikes us at IDP most deeply and immediately is Morton’s dismissiveness of and contempt for immigrants who have encountered the criminal justice system. He most definitely does not speak for us or for the thousands of families and communities to whom these immigrants belong. We are proud to care about and to fight for the rights for immigrants with criminal arrests and convictions. And we want them back as part of our communities.

We know there’s no easy road ahead. But if we are to work for real safety in our communities and due process for us all, we must stop these deportations. There’s just no way around it – we have to completely reform the immigration laws that have created the devastating situation we now find ourselves in. So let us mark the 15th anniversary of IIRIRA by committing to work together to Fix ’96.

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