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Dear Editor:
Lawmakers Take Stand for Families, Fairness - House Judiciary Committee Gives Legal Immigrants Day in Court

In an effort to keep American families together and restore justice for legal immigrants, the House Judiciary Committee passed an amended version of the bipartisan Family Reunification Act, H.R. 1452. The Act would restore a limited measure of fairness to a harsh 1996 law that was meant to clamp down on illegal immigration and make it easier to deport serious criminals. Instead, the 1996 law has torn apart thousands of American families and stripped long-term legal immigrants of their basic rights.

The measure the Judiciary committee passed this week reflects a compromise between House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and the bill's sponsor, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA). The Sensenbrenner-Frank compromise would provide a limited opportunity for certain long-term legal permanent residents to ask a judge to consider the facts of their case before deciding whether to deport them from the United States. The measure includes an amendment by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) that requires any new grounds of relief from deportation to be personally approved by the Attorney General or Deputy AG and contains a sunset provision that would terminate the measure in 2005. AILA opposed the Issa amendment but supports the Family Reunification Act as an important first step toward reforming the harsh 1996 laws. The measure would:
* Give immigration judges the option to grant relief from deportation in cases involving long-term legal permanent residents who committed relatively minor offenses.
* Ban relief for anyone convicted of terrorism-related or other serious offenses, such as rape, murder, and sexual abuse.

"Representatives Frank and Sensenbrenner are to be commended for reaching a compromise on this important issue. The Family Reunification Act is a limited and narrowly crafted response to unjust immigration policies that cause good lives to be needlessly ruined by a bad system," said Jeanne Butterfield, Executive Director of AILA. "The Act is a first step toward changing a system that badly needs to be reformed. We need to use our law enforcement and INS resources to target terrorists, not harmless members of American families."

The Family Reunification Act would restore the basic right of long-term legal immigrants to have their day in court. Without the Act, the 1996 law indiscriminately subjects all legal immigrants convicted of even minor offenses to a "one size fits all" punishment of lifetime deportation, with no chance to have their cases evaluated by a judge to determine if such a harsh penalty makes sense.

One American family that would be helped by the Family Reunification Act is that of Robert and Sheila Salas. Robert came legally to the United States from Peru in 1985 and has been a lawful permanent resident for 16 years. His wife, Sheila, is an Air Force staff sergeant and they have two young daughters. In 1999, Robert decided to apply to become a U.S. citizen, partly so that if his wife is assigned overseas the family can move together. During his citizenship interview, Robert truthfully disclosed his 12-year old conviction for simple drug possession, which resulted in probation and was later dismissed. Even though his offense is not considered a conviction under criminal law, it counts as an "aggravated felony" under 1996 immigration laws that are retroactive. INS put Robert in deportation proceedings. The Salas' are fighting to keep their family together. If Robert is deported, Sheila will be forced to decide between keeping the family together and serving her country.

"It may come as a shock that anyone would oppose the fundamental American principle of having one's day in court, that anyone would deny people like the Salas' the right to have their case heard; but the measure, approved by an 18-15 vote, does have opponents," said Butterfield. "It is a very sad day when the right to a day in court becomes a controversial idea."

"Our immigration laws can be both tough and fair," concluded Butterfield. "The bill simply recognizes that certain long-term legal residents deserve an opportunity to present the facts of their case and have a judge determine whether or not they should be deported from the United States. Now it is up to Congress to restore this basic right to long-time legal immigrants."

American Immigration Lawyers Association

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