Gotham Gazette

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Legalization and De-Legalization

As thousands of students walked out of their schools to protest pending immigration bills in Congress, 17-year-old Julio Beltre stood in front of New York’s Federal Plaza last month to tell the story of his father, Juan Beltre: On a morning a year ago, in April 2005, before the sun rose, six agents from the Department of Homeland Security had woken up his father and dragged him away from their Bronx home, while his wife and four children -- all U.S. citizens -- watched in horror.

Why was he being seized? Juan Beltre had committed a single drug possession offense dating back to 1995. But in those ten long years, Beltre had completed probation, was a long-term greencard holder -- and was now suffering from a brain tumor.

"Now my mom has to raise us alone,” his son recounted at the demonstration. His father was deported back to the Dominican Republic.

The testimonies of Julio Beltre and a dozen other citizen-children with similar stories came in a week of marches, walkouts, hearings, and headlines. Immigration is the issue everywhere, from the hearts of protesters to the halls of the Capitol to the editorial pages of The New York Times.

More Legalization -- Or More Deportations?

The debate is as complex as it is heated. On March 27th, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved an immigration bill that would, if passed into law:

  • expand the grounds of deportation
  • use domestic military bases for immigration detention
  • legalize the indefinite detention of noncitizens
  • authorize New York City police and other local officers to enforce federal immigration laws
  • erect a border fence
  • enable Homeland Security agents to expel suspected foreigners indiscriminately
  • create a national identification system for all workers.

Yet the following morning, the front page of New York’s largest Spanish language paper, El Diario, exclaimed “TRIUMFAMOS.” Meanwhile, restrictionist commentator Lou Dobbs campaigned against the bill on television and in Mexico.

This ironic role reversal stems from one section of the proposed bill, the guestworker legalization provisions. Under the leadership of Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the Judiciary Committee voted 12-6 to approve a new visa program, devised by Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain, under which undocumented workers would have to register with the government, maintain continuous employment for six years, pay back and future taxes, and pass civics and English lessons in order to apply for a green card. Some hail the Senate bill as a victory because, for the first time since the amnesty passed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, undocumented workers would have a potential pathway to work and live lawfully in the U.S.

Fighting To Keep The Legalization Provisions

In the coming weeks, the Judiciary proposal faces the scrutiny of the full Senate. Advocates are fighting to prevent the “earned legalization” provisions from being watered down. The main variable is whether or not the visa granted to undocumented workers will lead to a green card and eventual citizenship.

We are now at a crossroads. While the nation’s attention is focused on the legalization question, lawmakers have guaranteed only one thing: there will be no legalization-only bill. If the Senate ultimately approves anything, it will go to a closed-door conference committee to be resolved with the House bill passed in December 2005 under the leadership of Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner. The House bill concedes no greencards. Its only common ground with the Senate is provisions to expand detentions, deportations, and border police.

A shared history underlies the consensus. September 11th transformed immigration into a national security debate, with Democrats and Republicans both convinced that any immigration reform must come with tighter controls. But as the Beltre family illustrates, the New York congressional delegation has to resolve the national security agenda with a powerful reality: non-citizens are not the only affected population. Citizen spouses and children left behind are devastated because of decade-old deportation laws.

Ten Years Of Deportations

It’s not the act of terror we remember best. In April 1995, a white veteran of the first Gulf War blew up the Oklahoma City federal building. One year later, to memorialize that tragedy, then-President Bill Clinton signed a sweeping immigration enforcement measure: the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. A sister bill, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, passed just months later.


Together, the 1996 laws transformed the meaning of membership in America and substantially ramped up policing based on citizenship. There was no legalization or guestworker program. Instead, there were sweeping deportation measures that empowered the executive branch to more easily expel people already within our borders.

Prior to the 1996 laws, a New Yorker placed in deportation proceedings could typically go before an immigration judge and seek a pardon if she could demonstrate that she was no threat to society and had significant ties to her U.S. community. But the new laws instituted a system of mandatory deportation and detention whereby the vast majority of New Yorkers facing deportation are held in immigrant prisons without bail and have no opportunity to plead their case before an immigration judge. These judges are appointees of the U.S. attorney general, yet they cannot pardon or postpone the deportation of a noncitizen – even if they believe the punishment would harm U.S. citizen children and communities.

With detention and deportation as the new mandatory minimums, more than 1.3 million people have been expelled from the U.S. in the last 10 years, and immigrants have become the fastest-growing segment of our prison population. (Homeland Security does not make city-specific statistics available.) Taxpayers are footing the bill for the ever-growing deportation budget. American veterans, breadwinners, and people who have lived here since infancy have been deported through this process.

Just before September 11th, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that 1996 went too far. One of its leading proponents, former Republican Congressman Bill McCollum of Florida, called the unintended impacts on families a “manifest injustice.” But such wisdom crumbled with the Twin Towers. America was left with the inflexible, even cruel legal infrastructure of 1996. Since the tragedy, the Bush Administration has poured billions into even more vigilant enforcement of these laws.

Plea Bargains Lead To Deportations

In New York as in other urban centers, the criminal justice system is a cornerstone of the immigration policing strategy. The criminal courts rely on a plea system to expedite the high volume of cases. Prosecutors issue lengthy indictments. Defense attorneys advise clients to plea to lesser charges, in order to secure a deal with little or no jail time.

Every week, hundreds of immigrant New Yorkers arrested for garden-variety crimes plead guilty under this plea-bargain system. But neither the judge nor attorney warn them that after they complete their sentence, a second punishment will follow: detention and deportation. As the federal immigration authorities’ reliance on local criminal institutions grows, there is no countervailing process to ensure that the rights of immigrants are observed.

Connecting Past and Present Policy

The criminalization trends of 1996 pervade the bills in Congress today. Proposals consistently extend mandatory deportation and detention to a wider net of immigrants. Even the most progressive proposals bar immigrants who admit to crimes – like using a fake ID to get a job – from obtaining green cards.

The New York congressional delegation has been nearly mute on how America’s immigration are harming families – with one recent exception. On March 28, 2006, Congressman Jose Serrano of the Bronx introduced the Child Citizen Protection Act, a bill to restore partial discretion to immigration judges in cases where removal of an immigrant is clearly against the best interests of a U.S. citizen child. Serrano called the bill “common-sense legislation” that would protect children and families from unnecessary separation. But the other members of Congress from New York are largely silent, despite the New York families who flood their district offices – families already devastated by deportation.

“Our leaders need to change the laws,” Julio Beltre concluded his speeech during the demonstration at Federal Plaza, “before more young people like me get hurt.” On April 24th, the 10-year anniversary of the 1996 laws, he and other New Yorkers will converge in Washington D.C. with families from other cities whose lives have changed because of deportation.

Aarti Shahani is a co-founder of Families for Freedom, a Brooklyn-based defense network for immigrant families facing deportation.

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