As the nation recovers from the horrific bombings in Boston, conservatives hastily called for delay of the Senate's upcoming immigration reform debate, perhaps with the intent of proposing more extreme immigration measures and scoring political points with immigration opponents.
Some likewise used the fear after Timothy McVeigh's 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City as an impetus to pass drastic changes to immigration laws in 1996, and again after 9/11. These laws exemplify the consequences to human rights when Congress legislates in knee jerk fashion.
By vastly expanding the number of crimes that can trigger deportation and making deportation a mandatory minimum for a wide range of offenses, these punitive immigration laws not only impose punishments disproportionate to the crime, but deny people their fair day in court. Noncitizens who get ensnarled in the criminal justice system -- one that disproportionately targets and convicts people of color -- face double jeopardy: they serve a sentence, and then, with few exceptions, get deported without an opportunity to argue their case to a judge.
After 9/11, the U.S. imposed severe "security" measures that have further eroded our rights and have deported over 3 million people -- more than in the previous 110 years combined.
We should learn from the lessons of the 1996 laws and the post-9/11 era, and use the momentum for immigration reform to reverse the negative repercussions to our communities and to values of fairness and due process. We need to put an end to the ever expanding list of criminal offenses that bar an individual from relief from deportation and to allow judges to weigh the individual circumstances of a person's case before he or she is permanently separated from family and expelled from the U.S.
While some are trying to use the Boston bombing to derail immigration reform, there is one significant difference between Boston and 9/11, when immigrants -- regardless of status -- came under political attack. The American public is clear that if basic rights are denied to one person, they are denied to all. A March 2013 national poll conducted by the Campaign for Accountable, Moral and Balanced Immigration (CAMBIO), found eight in ten (80 percent) in agreement, that "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."
Under our current unfair legal system for immigrants imposed in 1996, 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 a wide range of offenses that are neither aggravated nor felonies. An immigrant with an aggravated felony conviction is mandatorily deported and exiled forever.
Some parts of the bill proposed by the "Gang of 8" begin to address these concerns, but the measure is riddled with provisions that would repeat and expand policy and political mistakes that led to record number deportations, including expulsion of many long time lawful permanent residents.
Congress should follow the advice of law enforcement veterans like Paul Grussendorf, who was an immigration judge in San Francisco and Philadelphia for seven years and is the author of My Trials: Inside America's Deportation Factories.
"Federal legislation should include a waiver that allows immigration judges the discretion to grant relief from deportation in deserving cases by weighing the age of the conviction, the severity of the offense, evidence of rehabilitation, substantial family ties in the United States and other factors relevant to the public interest," Grussendorf wrote recently in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Immigration reform, if handled correctly, will protect American values of fairness and due process, and preserve the well-being of families and the communities in which they live.