When Carmen fled Honduras with her nine year old daughter Patricia [names changed to protect identity] because gang members were threatening to rape them both, they went north, in fear for their very lives, and believing the United States would provide them with safe refuge as it has for generations of Cuban, Vietnamese, Jewish and European refugees before them. But instead of being given a chance to see an immigration judge and make a case for being a refugee, they were given deportation orders, thrown into a prison-like detention center and charged with attempting to illegally enter the country.
This inhumane treatment - one that belies America's history of generosity to refugees fleeing violence and murder - is the direct result of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility (IIRIRA) Act, which passed twenty years ago last month. Two decades later, this 1996 act has wreaked havoc on our immigrant communities - setting in motion the mass criminalization of our immigration system, as unprecedented waves of violence and displacement in Central America and the Middle East have revealed how broken our system truly is. When President Bill Clinton signed IIRIRA into law in 1996, he set the United States on a path that would ultimately lead to some of the most unwelcoming policies and violent rhetoric we have ever endured.
IIRIRA made it significantly harder to legally immigrate to the United States, while adding devastating penalties for violating even minor parts of immigration law. Though proponents of restrictive immigration policies are fond of arguing that only those who wait patiently in "line" should be granted permission to live in the United States, the reality is that since IIRIRA no such line exists to even get in, save for a few with strong financial cushions and high levels of education. Those without economic resources attempt instead to qualify for sparse relief options; yet end up becoming the victims of fraud, as false lawyers and immigration "officials" prey on their vulnerability and desperation to remain in the United States.
IIRIRA has also effectively put in motion the mass criminalization of our immigration system - using mandatory detention for immigrants, expanding the uses of non-mandatory detention, imposing harsh immigration penalties for small criminal violations, and stripping adjudicators and federal courts of the discretion or jurisdiction to hear challenges to immigration decisions. For immigrants this means that even the slightest misstep such as a low-level arrest can have devastating consequences, including being torn from one's family through deportation.
For those seeking protection from harm, the consequences are even more devastating. In addition to permitting - even encouraging - harsh, punitive measures against asylum seekers at the borders, IIRIRA has led to a refugee crisis in our interior. Here, asylum applicants are subject to years-long delays that encourage fraud while creating obstacles to obtaining permission to work and accessing social benefits for the most vulnerable.
Twenty years after IIRIRA, we look forward again with hopes for a new administration and long-awaited immigration reform. It is imperative, though, that we look back as well and truly understand how one law, focused on enforcement and driven by an ugly wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, has led to some of the most unjust and unwelcoming policies this country has ever endured. To move forward with immigration reform, we must "Fix 96" for the good of all of our communities and to ensure we don't repeat the same mistakes.
**The NYIC joined the New York State Bar Association and New York Law School on Tuesday October 25th to look back and analyze the impact of IIRIRA as we discuss the road forward. For more from the conference, follow @thenyic and #Fix96 on twitter **