Democrats Reintroduce Legislation To 'Decriminalize Immigration'

Reps. Jesús “Chuy” García, Ayanna Pressley and Pramila Jayapal are leading the reform effort.

Democrats are pushing sweeping legislation to decriminalize immigration and disrupt the “prison-to-deportation” pipeline.

On Tuesday, Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.) and co-sponsors Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) held a virtual press conference discussing their New Way Forward Act — originally introduced in 2019, alongside Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.). It would ban for-profit immigration detention facilities, end the use of local police for immigration enforcement and decriminalize border crossings. It also would eliminate mandatory deportation, for instance in the case of people with previous criminal records, to instead allow judges to use their discretion in deciding cases.

“Decriminalizing immigration is not a radical concept at all,” García said. “What is radical is caging school-aged children. What is radical is detaining thousands of refugees in dangerous conditions of squalor. We’re simply asking for fair treatment.”

Within days of being in office, the Biden-Harris administration began their efforts to undo former President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant legacy by repealing the anti-Muslim travel ban and proposing that Congress pass a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people in the country.

Jayapal, who identifies as a “proud immigrant” and naturalized citizen, said that while it was a “relief” to have Trump out of office after “four xenophobic years,” it is “not enough to just reverse the hateful policies.”

“America’s racist, xenophobic immigration system has been broken for decades,” Jayapal said, citing the nation’s history of separating families through deportation and considering immigration violations, like crossing the border outside a port of entry, as criminal and not civil offenses.

“This legislation keeps families together, it advances racial justice and it protects due process for everyone,” she said.

Pressley hopes the legislation will end the “prison-to-deportation” pipeline, in which immigrants of color, who are stopped and arrested more often by police and given harsher sentences than their white peers, can end up in ICE detention and at times deported back to their home countries.

“For too long our immigration and criminal legal systems have been deeply and fundamentally intertwined,” Pressley said, adding that this bill package aims to create an immigration system that “finally centers the humanity of our immigrant neighbors.”

Chanthon Bun, a Cambodian refugee, told his story during the press conference. Born during the Cambodian genocide, he moved to Los Angeles as a child in 1985. At age 18, he got involved with a gang and committed a robbery and was sentenced to 49 years in prison. Last year, after 22 years incarcerated, Bun was set to be released on parole. Immigration and Customs Enforcement informed him that he would be deported upon release, back to a country he fled due to violence, where his father and other family members had been killed. It was only after protests from the local community that Bun was released without being placed in ICE custody.

“The New Way Forward would help stop this prison-to-ICE detention pipeline and will keep families together,” Bun said, who survived COVID-19 after contracting it during a massive outbreak in California’s San Quentin state prison, where he was incarcerated. “What ICE is doing now is traumatizing not just the person incarcerated, but the family and community.”

The Trump administration notoriously separated thousands of migrant children from their parents at the border in 2018 — hundreds of whom have still not been reunited. The Democrats’ proposed legislation goes beyond simply stopping family separations at the border — they’re pushing for the end of family separations through deportations and to allow those previously deported to reapply to reenter the U.S. and reunite with family still living here.

“All families should be reunited whether they were separated by Trump or by deportation,” Jayapal said Tuesday.

After a judge in Texas issued a temporary halt to Biden’s 100-day ban on most deportations on Tuesday, García said Biden’s deportation ban was “legally sound, morally necessary and we’re confident this enormous miscarriage of justice will be rectified.”

Asked whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) knew of their immigration bill, García said the lawmakers “hope to earn her support.”

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