There are changes to the immigration system that cannot wait for the presidential elections.
Top Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton has already outlined some of her concerns with current immigration enforcement practices, particularly in her roundtable discussion with undocumented students at Rancho High School. But the families being torn apart by deportation and the many people waiting in immigration detention cannot, and should not, have to wait for Presidential elections for these reforms to be prioritized and enacted.
President Obama could make the changes to the immigration enforcement system outlined by Clinton, now.
If Clinton and the Democratic Party believe in these changes as more than talking points, they should move for President Obama to enact them immediately with the urging and vocal support of his party.
Add your organization to the list of signers asking President Obama to enact the changes, six of which are outlined below.
During the roundtable discussion Hillary Clinton said that she was “very worried about detention facilities for people who are vulnerable and for children” and called for the use of discretion, like the President’s executive orders, to change the detention process.
As Clinton asserts, conditions in detention facilities are deplorable. Detainees lack access to medical care, protection from violence and legal counsel. Vulnerable populations such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and especially transgender immigrants, face especially horrific and dehumanizing conditions, including frequent violence and harassment from guards, deprivation of necessary medical care, psychological torture through solitary confinement, and all too often rape.
Particularly for LGBTQ people with criminal histories, ICE should start with a presumption of hardship for people with community and family ties. The agency can then consider all other factors and circumstances that lead to the agency’s designated enforcement practices, but the burden should be on ICE to overcome the presumption of the tremendous hardship caused by the detention of LGBTQ immigrants.
President Obama must direct DHS to use discretion to release from custody of particularly vulnerable populations, including people who are pregnant, transgender, living with HIV/AIDS, and/or with disabilities.
Clinton told undocumented youth that she would go “even further” than President Obama on deferred action, and would like to have “a simple, straightforward and accessible way for parents of DREAMers and others with a history of service and contribution to their communities to make their case.”
Although the White House has argued otherwise, legal experts around the country agree that the President has the authority to expand the group of people who qualify for deferred action, including to people who are parents of deferred action recipients and the other 7 million undocumented immigrants who were left out of President Obama’s executive actions.
“A lot of detention facilities for immigrants are run by private detention facilities, and they have a legal incentive to fill them up. There is actually a legal requirement that so many beds are filled. So people go out and round up people in order to get paid on a per-day basis. That makes no sense to me. That is not the way we should be running any detention facility,” explained Clinton.
The reality is that currently private companies operate 50% of immigration detention beds. Private companies own a stark 100 percent of beds for immigrants serving time for drug offence s or unlawful re-entry. Until private contractors are banned, the President could ensure that private prisons be made subject to the same FOIA laws as public actors, and contracts with private prisons could be required have strict accountability and oversight mechanisms, with contract termination established as a clear consequence of violation.
Currently, 4.4 million people have filed immigration applications but still wait, often times for decades to be reunited with family in the United States. Many of these same people are subject to detention and deportation for overstaying their visas in the United States, and many U.S. citizens remain separated from their loved ones. The backlog particularly impacts Asian Americans with 35% of those in the backlog from Asian countries.
As part of the Visa Modernization Taskforce established by the executive actions on November 20, 2014, many organizations have called on the President to make much needed reforms to the legal immigration system. The President should heed these calls and act to streamline the legal immigration system by protecting from deportation anyone with an approved family or employment visa petition; count derivatives as part of the same family unit for purposes of immigration visas; recapture unused visas and reapply them to those seeking to immigrate; and use parole as a mechanism to reunite families who continue to wait in the growing visa backlog.
The undocumented students who shared their recommendations and stories with Clinton spoke about being paid less than minimum wage, working in less than adequate conditions and being scared of their employers. Clinton responded that that the best way to assure that immigrant workers are not taken advantage of is to pass immigration reform, “The quicker we can legalize the people who are here, the better the job market will be for everyone. Because you won’t have a group of people who are taken advantage of” by being “paid so much less and treated so much worse, “ as Clinton explained. But there are things that President Obama could do now to improve the working conditions of undocumented workers, and allow them to become advocates on behalf of working people when there are labor abuses taking place.
President Obama could prohibit unscrupulous employers and other bad actors from using immigration status as a weapon against organizing and whistle-‐blowing immigrants who push back on inhumane hours, dangerous conditions, and withholding of pay (among other violations). Federal agencies could adopt formal non-‐retaliation policies prohibiting agents from targeting defenders of civil, labor, and human rights for arrest, detention, or deportation. These non-‐retaliation policies should include a blanket prohibition of immigration enforcement activities during a labor dispute, an organizing drive and/or as a result of either. The President could also give deferred action to individuals without lawful status who come forward to file civil, labor, or human rights complaints; individuals who are detained by immigration authorities during a labor strike; and individuals involved in a pending matter before a federal agency in which they are participating/providing evidence. Finally, all agencies that enforce civil, labor, and human rights should be recognized as having authority to certify U-‐Nonimmigrant Status.
Although there was little crossover between the round table discussion on immigration and Clinton’s recent Columbia University speech on reforms to the criminal justice system, there are important connections between them. During her speech, she explains that “It’s time to change our approach. It’s time to end the era of mass incarceration. We need a true national debate about how to reduce our prison population while keeping our communities safe.”
Current immigration enforcement practices equate deportation and detention of immigrants with criminal histories with community safety. Especially after the November 20th announcement on changes to the priorities as defined by the Department of Homeland Security, families are being torn apart when their loved ones are taken into custody – regardless of whether this takes away a breadwinner from the family, of how long ago the conviction took place, whether the person has lived most of their life in the U.S., or the type of restitution that the person has made to society after their conviction. Although Clinton is not specifically referring to immigrants, she gets it right when she says that “keeping them behind bars does little to reduce crime. But it does a lot to tear apart families and communities.”
The President has the power to make changes to how the immigration system criminalizes immigrant families and communities. Right now, he could direct the DHS to review its guidelines and priorities, particularly when it comes to people with criminal convictions. As with LGBT immigrants and other vulnerable populations, ICE should start with a presumption of hardship for people with community and family ties. The burden should be on ICE to prove need for deportation and detention.
In addition, the executive branch has created programs that criminalize immigration and allow local police to act as immigration agents. Operation Streamline, for example, mandates the criminal prosecution of nearly every individual detained for unlawfully crossing the southern United States border. The program is one of the main reasons that immigration-‐related crimes now make up 40% of federal criminal prosecutions. Operation Streamline, like other ICE-access programs, was created by the Executive branch, not by Congress. Just as the Executive branch created the program, it can end it. President Obama has the constitutional authority not only to decline to prosecute, but to pardon any and all violations of criminal immigration laws—in advance or after the fact, for any reason or no reason at all, on an individual or a categorical basis. In the face of this broad authority, there can be no question that the President could end Operation Streamline immediately and the criminal prosecution of people for immigration-related violations.
Lastly, the President could end all collaboration between local police enforcement and immigration enforcement. Even after the end of the Secure Communities program, the Priority Enforcement Program continues to seek collaboration with local governments to detain and deport undocumented immigrants. Ending collaboration between police and ICE is an important step that opens the door for trust between communities and police.
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As the immigration debate continues, #Not1More enters the discussion from the place that touches people in concrete ways and can offer tangible relief. By collectively challenging unfair deportations and unjust policy through organizing, art, legislation, and action, we aim to reverse criminalization, build migrant power, and create immigration policies based on principles of inclusion.
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