Tuesday, May 24, 2011
House Bill Could Lengthen Detentions for Immigrants Awaiting Deportation
Human rights advocates warned Tuesday about potential civil rights violations in a congressional bill that proposes long-term jailing of immigrants who cannot be returned promptly to their home countries.
The bill was the subject of a House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration policy and enforcement hearing in Washington, D.C.
The Supreme Court has ruled that immigrants awaiting deportation can be detained by U.S. police no more than six months.
The Keep Our Communities Safe Act proposed by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) would eliminate the six-month time limit.
Instead, the immigrants could be held in jail as long as the courts decide they represent a threat to society.
He mentioned the examples of two immigrants – one from China and the other from Cuba – who committed murders after being released under the six-month time limit on detention.
Both of them were due for deportation, but their home countries refused to accept them because of suspicions about their criminal behavior.
Instead, the Cuban, Abel Arango, murdered a Fort Myers, Florida, police officer when he was freed from jail in the United States and the Chinese man, Huan Chen, murdered a personal rival.
“Just because a criminal immigrant cannot be returned to their home country does not mean they should be freed into our communities,” Smith said. “Dangerous criminal immigrants need to be detained.”
His bill, H.R. 1932, would allow detention of immigrants beyond six months if they refuse to cooperate with deportation proceedings, they risk disrupting foreign relations, creating national security threats or have criminal records showing violent tendencies. Some immigrants that carry “a highly contagious disease” also could be confined beyond six months.
A representative from the American Civil Liberties Union said the Keep Our Communities Safe Act is nearly certain to result in long-term detentions of innocent people.
Only some immigrants awaiting deportation are criminals, said Ahilan T. Arulanantham, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Southern California.
“In many other situations, however, the trigger for immigration detention is not criminal activity at all, but instead some other kind of immigration matter, such as overstaying a visa or attempting to gain asylum,” he said. “More than half of the people in immigration detention have never been convicted of any crime.”
In addition, people who could “otherwise contribute to the economy, serve their communities and support their families” would instead be held in detention at an average annual cost of $45,000 per detainee, Arulanantham said.
The 33,000 immigrants awaiting deportation already cost American taxpayers $1.9 billion per year, he said.
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) said he was concerned the bill would throw good people into long detentions along with bad ones, giving them “no opportunity for a bond hearing, even if they create no risk to the public and no risk of flight.”
If the proposed legislation is targeted only at criminals, “This bill doesn’t do that,” Conyers said.
Some witnesses from law enforcement agencies disagreed, saying the bill would protect the safety of the community.
Thomas H. Dupree Jr., a former U.S. deputy assistant attorney general, told the House subcommittee that legal procedural difficulties sometimes make prompt deportation impractical.
“The consequence is that under current law, the government is compelled to release into our communities murderers, child molesters and other predators who pose a clear and direct threat to public safety and national security,” Dupree said.
Gary Mead, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement associate director, described a deportation process that often is slowed by uncooperative foreign countries.
“For example, China, India, Iran and Laos are very slow to issue travel documents to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement],” Mead said. “China and India both engage in lengthy background investigations to verify nationality and identity, thereby substantially delaying the issuance of travel documents.”