The long-delayed congressional debate over decisive immigration reform began last week following the filing of a bipartisan measure that creates a roadmap to citizenship for a portion of the 11 million immigrants now in the country without documents. However, more work lies ahead to ensure that Congress upholds the fundamental American values of fairness and due process as part of any reforms, according to the Immigrant Justice Network, a collaboration of the Immigrant Defense Project, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, and National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.
These organizations, which promote fundamental rights for immigrants accused of a crime, note that many parts of the bill repeat and expand the same policy and political mistakes that led to a record number deportations, including the removal of many long time lawful permanent residents. There were more deportations in the past 10 years than in the last 100 years combined, under a system that eroded due process and increased unchecked militarization of the border.
“The Senate bill includes some restoration of due process and judicial discretion, especially for considerations regarding detention,” said Alisa Wellek, of the Immigrant Defense Project. “The promise of immigration reform requires further improvements to judicial waivers that would allow judges to weigh the individual circumstances of a person’s case before she is permanently separated from her family and exiled from the United States.”
Under our current unfair legal system for immigrants, thousands of Green card holders, asylum seekers and undocumented are prohibited from presenting their entire case before an immigration judge because they are accused of having committed “aggravated felonies,” an immigration legal term that includes crimes that are neither aggravated nor felonies. An immigrant with an aggravated felony conviction is automatically deported and exiled forever no matter what his family circumstances are or how long he has been a permanent legal resident.
“Reform legislation must amend harsh criminal bars preventing people from staying on the path to citizenship and ensure that so-called aggravated felonies no longer trigger mandatory detention and deportation,” said Robert Johnson, former President of the National District Attorneys Association. “It is inappropriate and unjust for immigration penalties to far surpass the criminal sanctions for these offenses.”
A March 2013 national poll conducted by the Campaign for Accountable, Moral and Balanced Immigration (CAMBIO), of which IJN is a member, found that eight in ten (80%) agreed “we should uphold American values of due process and human rights, which means immigrants should not be deported without a judge being able to evaluate the circumstances of their case.”
“The public supports the fundamental values of fairness and equal protection, and we believe it is in the interest of Congress to follow their lead,” said Angie Junck of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
Last week the American Immigration Lawyers Association [AILA] (an organization of thousands of Immigration Attorneys that I am proud to be a member of) completed our 2013 National Day of Action in Washington, D.C. This was AILA's largest lobby day ever, with over 400 participants and 375 lobby visits completed. Lobby visits found a Congress that is more ready than ever to get to the hard work of creating a common sense immigration process for this country. But our efforts won't stop at the National Day of Action!
The 814 page Senate Bill just hit the floor. The House version will be later. The battle has begun! By the end of the summer we will either be cheering or crying.
One thing to remember from the beginning as attorneys is to be realistic with our expectations and the advice we give to our clients. This is a long process with continual modifications. The final law - if we get to a final law - will have elements we hate. There will be compromises and neither side may be happy with the outcome. The goal is to get the best bill we can, knowing it will come with some bitter parts.
Once the bills are made public, the media blitz begins. We can expect a sharp increase in phone calls from our clients and their extended family. Emails will increase. Everyone wants to know how this will affect their cases now and in the future. While the anti-immigrant groups have been subdued lately, that will soon end. They will immediately begin to work and their media campaigns will only increase throughout this process. It will be a challenge to keep cool and to keep informed. We must be ready with our positive message.
It is vital for the immigrant public to keep informed. Take a moment each day to review my website blogs as I will try to keep them updated for you.
If we have major reform, it will greatly effect you and your loved ones. Don’t be on the sidelines letting others decide your future. We are all busy. We will become even busier. Get in the game. We all have heard from people in the past of how they have lived with a lingering sense of regret for not doing more than they did to support the cause. By keeping informed and having quick access to the most recent developments, there are several simple advocacy steps you can easily incorporate into your daily lives.
Be careful about fraudulent promises and misinformation coming from unscrupuoulous people who will try to take advantage of the excitement and confusion. When the bills are released, you will have many questions about the misinformation that you have heard on television and from others. Don’t be taken advantage of. Keep yourself updated and ready to seperate facts from lies or misinformation. No matter how much or little time you can donate, there are things you can do. And you will feel good for it.
Get involved. One of the most important tasks, and also the easiest, is to be ready to call Congress on short notice. We may get a bill sent to a committee quickly and it will be bombed with many amendments. Good and bad amendments. Our voice must be heard within hours, and the best way is with phone calls. Soon we will be sending out a request for volunteers who can take a quick moment to make a call with a quick message of support or opposition.
Have a say in your own future. Keep informed and be ready for quick action. No matter what your skill level, there are ways to be involved. The next few months may be very exciting for all of us. Your efforts will significantly affect our lives--and the direction of this country--for decades to come!
Daniel E. Chaves is an immigration & naturalization attorney who serves clients throughout the Northern California San Francisco Bay Area.