For Immediate Release
US: 20 Years of Immigrant Abuses
Under 1996 Laws, Arbitrary Detention, Fast-Track Deportation, Family Separation
WASHINGTON - The United States Congress should repeal provisions in two 1996 immigration laws that have subjected hundreds of thousands of people to arbitrary detention, fast-track deportations, and family separation, Human Rights Watch said today.
A proposed resolution to be introduced on April 26, 2016, by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, symbolically recognizes some of the harm caused by these laws and proposes limited reform.
“The US appears to be coming to grips with the harm caused by its 90s-era crime laws,” said Alison Parker, co-director of the US program at Human Rights Watch. “These 90s-era immigration laws also deserve serious scrutiny and reconsideration.”
President Bill Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, known as AEDPA, on April 24, 1996. The legislation, passed in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, greatly expanded the grounds for detaining and deporting immigrants, including long-term legal residents. It was the first US law to authorize certain now-widely-used fast-track deportation procedures.
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), signed in September 1996, made further sweeping changes to immigration laws. It eliminated key defenses against deportation and subjected many more immigrants, including legal permanent residents, to detention and deportation. IIRIRA defined a greatly expanded range of criminal convictions – including relatively minor, nonviolent ones – for which legal permanent residents could be automatically deported. IIRIRA also made it much more difficult for people fleeing persecution to apply for asylum.
Over the last two decades, Human Rights Watch has documented how these laws rip apart the families of even long-term legal residents via the broad swath of criminal convictions considered triggers for automatic deportation or detention.
Antonio C. (pseudonym), a legal permanent resident from Ecuador, is just one current example. US authorities are detaining him for deportation on the basis of a 2005 drug conviction. He was brought to the US when he was a year old and has seven US citizen children, including a 3-year-old son with autism.
“I grew up in a neighborhood in Queens that was basically drugs and fighting,” he told Human Rights Watch. “And I messed up. But I paid for what I did and I learned my lesson. Now they are trying to take me away from my kids.”
The laws have also helped perpetuate a system of unnecessarily widespread immigration detention. They include provisions authorizing mandatory, sometimes prolonged detention during deportation proceedings for thousands of immigrants who have already served their criminal sentences for drugs or other crimes. The mandatory detention provisions also require detention of non-citizens in expedited deportation procedures while they apply for asylum or humanitarian protection.
Oscar M. (pseudonym) was “mandatorily” detained for 11 months in 2014, after entering the US to seek protection from his family and the Honduran police, who had threatened his life because he is gay.
“Being detained was unbearable for me,” he said. “I didn’t feel safe. I felt harassed and I wanted to give up, which would have been suicide.” In December 2014, he was granted the right to remain in the US and protection from deportation certifying that he met and exceeded the standards for refugee protection under US law.
Human Rights Watch has also found that the fast-track border deportations authorized by these laws deny many asylum seekers a meaningful opportunity to make their claims, as required by US and international law. There are also persistent allegations that US Border Patrol agents administering these fast-track deportations sometimes ignore the attempts of asylum seekers to secure protection.
Kelin R. (pseudonym) fled El Salvador in September 2015, with her 3-year-old daughter. At the US border, both were placed in expedited removal, a fast-track deportation procedure authorized by the 1996 laws. Like dozens of other people in fast-track procedures Human Rights Watch has interviewed, she disputes the contents of a statement produced by a US Border Patrol agent which says she came to the US to work and had no fear of returning to El Salvador.
“They were going to kill me and my family,” she said, referring to local police she said were in league with a street gang. “I didn’t [tell the Border Patrol] I came to work. I said I fled for my life.”
A full list of Human Rights Watch reports documenting the harm to immigrants and their families caused by the 1996 laws appears below.
The harm of AEDPA also goes beyond immigration policy, Human Rights Watch said. Notably, the law substantially limited the power of federal courts to consider petitions filed by prisoners alleging that they were wrongly convicted – including people on death row.
“Twenty years of unjust detention, deportation, and family separation is 20 years too much,” Parker said. “Let this be the last anniversary for these terrible laws.”
Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.