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Urge Congress to Give Immigrants a Meaningful Day in Court, by Supporting the Family Reunification Act
by Rob Randhava

The Family Reunification Act of 2001 (H.R. 1452), introduced by Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL), seeks to alleviate the all-too-frequent hardships faced by long-term legal permanent residents and their families under the mandatory detention and deportation provisions of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA). Enacted with the intent of increasing the power of the INS to quickly deport immigrants convicted of serious crimes, IIRIRA's provisions have, tragically, cast too wide a net.

Similar in too many ways to mandatory minimum sentencing under the criminal laws, IIRIRA's mandatory deportation laws blindly and indiscriminately subject any legal resident convicted of virtually any criminal offense to a "one size fits all" remedy of lifetime deportation, with no chance for a judge to determine whether such a harsh punishment makes sense in a particular case. Most crimes - even many misdemeanors - are now labeled "aggravated felonies" under immigration law, and this label makes any factors such as:

  • evidence of rehabilitation,
  • length of residency,
  • family and community ties,
  • the seriousness of the offense, and
  • the simple question of whether deportation in a particular case would truly further public safety
completely irrelevant, as a matter of law, in a deportation hearing. Veterans who have honorably served our country and young Americans who do not even remember their countries of birth have alike, regardless of the particular offenses, been treated just as harshly under our immigration laws as undocumented immigrants who have committed the most heinous, violent crimes imaginable. For example:

•  Joao Herbert was adopted by Nancy Saunders and James Herbert in 1986 at the age of eight from an orphanage in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He grew up in Wadsworth, Ohio, playing soccer and basketball alongside his Medina County classmates. James submitted naturalization papers for his son just prior to Joao's 18th birthday, but the application was not processed in time. Even though the INS had already accepted the application fee, Joao was told that he would have to seek citizenship on his own. Shortly after his 18th birthday, Joao was arrested for selling 7.5 ounces of marijuana to an undercover police officer, and pled guilty to the charge. Even though it was his first offense, he was placed in deportation proceedings as an "aggravated felon"with no hope of staying with the only family he knew and in the only country he had ever called "home." He was deported last November to a country he barely remembers, and his father, who is a quadriplegic as the result of an automobile accident, does not think he will ever be able to make the trip to Brazil to see his son again.

•  Gabriel Delgadillo was born in Coahuila, Mexico, but came to the United States at the age of 15. Delgadillo was once a migrant farm-worker who volunteered to protect Cesar Chavez during a table-grape boycott. In 1967, he was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War, and earned three medals for his service. When he applied for veterans' disability benefits several years ago, after his battle with alcoholism left him with serious health problems, a crime that he had committed long ago was discovered: in 1988, Delgadillo had let some friends borrow his car to commit a burglary. He pled guilty to burglary at the time, and after serving 14 months in prison, he quit drinking, obtained his GED, and entered a religious program for recovering addicts. Even though his offense occurred long before the 1996 passage of laws calling for the automatic deportation of noncitizens convicted of crimes, Delgadillo was retroactively classified as an "aggravated felon" who would have no chance of remaining in the country he had served. The 52-year-old was picked up by the INS at his home in California, and he was locked up in an INS detention facility in Florence, Arizona. While he was being held during proceedings, his sister died of a liver disorder. By then detention proved too much for him, and several weeks later he agreed to forgo any appeals and accept his deportation to Mexico - leaving his wife and seven children, all U.S. citizens, behind.

Under its "mandatory detention" provision, IIRIRA also requires the jailing - without even a chance to seek bail - of nearly any noncitizen who has been convicted of a criminal offense while they are awaiting deportation hearings. Mandatory detention has a terribly devastating effect on immigrants and their families, because it leaves no room to consider whether such imprisonment is actually necessary. INS "detainees" - who in most cases have already repaid their debt to society, if they served any time at all - are usually imprisoned under harsh conditions in state prisons or local jails throughout the country, often hundreds or thousands of miles away from their families, jobs, communities and attorneys - and frequently for years.

The Family Reunification Act will allow our immigration system to sensibly sort out the good from the bad during deportation proceedings, by allowing an immigration judge to consider more than just a prior criminal conviction, and carefully determine whether the person behind the "aggravated felony" label genuinely deserves to be cast away for life. Those entitled to a hearing could also be released on bond if they are not dangerous or likely to flee, allowing them to continue living their lives in the months or years it can take for a final decision. Importantly, the bill carefully ensures that nobody with a criminal conviction can avoid the prospect of deportation if they would face it under current law; it simply ensures that immigrants - and only long-term, legal permanent residents at that - will receive a meaningful day in court once deportation hearings are underway.

To contact your representatives and urge them to support H.R. 1452, please visit

About The Author

Rob Randhava is a policy analyst with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a diverse coalition of over 180 civil & human rights organizations. Rob works primarily on issues involving the rights of immigrants, and for four years has been a key player in the efforts to legislatively undo the mandatory detention and deportation provisions of the 1996 immigration reforms.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.