Passing the Torch on the Clinton Immigration Legacy

Let's play a quick game of Guess the Candidate:

"...we must remain a nation of laws. We cannot tolerate illegal immigration and we must stop it. [Candidate] is making our border a place where the law is respected and drugs and illegal immigrants are turned away."

You may be nodding your head (or rolling your eyes) at the usual antics of Donald Trump, but these were the words of then-incumbent President Bill Clinton's 1996 Democratic Party Platform. Clinton was running for re-election on an anti-immigrant platform, promising to increase deportations and deny entry to immigrants. In accordance with this vision, he signed into law what are known today as some of the most regressive immigration policies ever enacted by our nation - the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) of 1996 and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996.

Today, as frightening and nerve-wracking as it is to know that Donald Trump could possibly win the election, I wonder if the Clintons understand that much of what Donald promises on immigration mirrors the laws successfully enacted by then-President Clinton twenty years ago.

Trump wants to build a massive wall, but many don't realize that there already is a vast and immobile figurative wall in place thanks to the 1996 immigration laws. This invisible wall serves watchful guard over immigrant communities, doling out excessive punishments - including lengthier than average prison terms, mandatory immigration detention, and automatic deportation - to lawful permanent residents, asylum seekers, and undocumented immigrants alike.

As a result of these laws, the consequences for interactions with the criminal justice system are even more severe in the immigration context.

Did you know that immigrants are still targeted for deportation today for decades-old convictions or convictions that have been expunged? The 287(g) program, established under the 1996 laws, set the foundation for racial profiling in places like Arizona, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio happily targeted and deported Latinos. There are even longtime lawful permanent residents who have been deported under the automatic deportation provisions of the 1996 laws for offenses such as shoplifting, certain drug crimes, or writing a bad check, "aggravated felonies" that are considered neither aggravated nor felonies in the criminal justice system.

Moreover, these two laws drastically expanded our nation's deportation machine by simultaneously eradicating due process rights to immigrants while ramping up enforcement operations and funding. Immigrants have been intentionally targeted for deportation at the same time we've been stripped of the right to a fair day in court just like everyone else. It's this contradiction that has paved the way for record-setting deportation rates under the Obama administration.

We are all human beings and thus blessed with the ability to make mistakes. Yet those of us who are immigrants are not afforded the second chances that are given to those born here; instead, these laws effectively punish us twice over - once in the criminal justice system and again in the immigration system.

So where does this 20-year legacy leave us today?

The current administration has made a bold push to alleviate the collateral consequences of criminal convictions through the use of commutations, early release, and support of the "ban the box" campaign. These efforts don't extend to our immigration system, with this administration making no effort to provide leniency for immigrants with criminal convictions who successfully serve their sentences and pay their debt to society. Though I commend this administration on tackling criminal justice reform, when it comes to the immigrant community, we are still seeing raids, family detention, and the rebranding of failed mass deportation programs like Secure Communities.

To her credit, Secretary Clinton has acknowledged the importance of reforming some of the provisions of the 1996 laws, such as the repeal of the 3- and 10- year bars, which prevent millions of mixed-status families from obtaining permanent immigration status. It's simply not enough to repeal the devastating, life-altering provisions of the 1996 laws while leaving the criminalization provisions in place.

I am scared for my family--a Trump presidency will be a threat for all Americans, not just the immigrant community. However, the notion that "the other candidate is worse" is simply not sufficient motivation to get the vote out for Latino and immigrant voters.

As we reach the 20th anniversary of IIRAIRA this week, Secretary Clinton can and must do better, and she has an opportunity as she had done for other communities, to become a champion for all of the immigrant community. I invite Secretary Clinton to acknowledge, as she has with the 1994 criminal justice reform laws, that the 1996 immigration laws were a mistake and that their reform must be one of the central tenets of truly comprehensive immigration reform.

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