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2016 Marks Devastating 20-Year Anniversary for American Families with Immigrant Roots

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Lundy Khoy faced deportation due to the 1996 immigration laws. Read more about her from the Immigrant Justice Network.

There are two types of anniversaries: joyous ones commemorating forward progress, and devastating ones reminding us how much time has passed since an evil act. 2016 is a devastating anniversary for many families with immigrant connections.

Twenty years ago, the U.S. Congress passed — and President Bill Clinton signed — a trifecta of immigration laws based entirely on anti-immigrant stereotypes. Rather than making the immigration system work better, as Rep. Lamar Smith promised, the laws actually made it much, much worse.

It is widely accepted that our immigration system today needs reform, but it’s hardly known that these the 1996 laws are a major part of the problem. Unless and until we address these laws, we will not achieve a fair immigration system.

As Dara Lind of Vox points out, 1996’s Illegal Immigration Reform and Control Act (and I would add the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act) had three main consequences for our immigration system: 1) making more people eligible for deportation; 2) giving the government more powers to deport immigrants quicker; and 3) keeping more people from legalizing their status, even when they have a legal path to a green card.

The 1996 laws actually created more undocumented people and led to the deportation of legal immigrants — all in the name of reducing unauthorized immigration. The laws also trampled on basic legal rights enshrined in our Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a few of these provisions, but most of IIRAIRA and ADEPA remain intact today.

Twenty years later, how many immigrants have been ripped from their families because of these cold-blooded changes to the law? How many American children have grown up without parents, because Rep. Lamar Smith made it his personal mission to erase immigrants — legal and undocumented — from this country? We don’t know the answers to those questions, but we do know that the toll is in the hundreds of thousands, if not more.

This week, members of the U.S. House of Representatives — lead by Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Keith Ellison (D-NM), and Judy Chu (D-CA) — introduced a resolution calling for the destruction of these laws, because “immigrants and their families in the United States have inherent dignity and are deserving of human rights.”

Cities for Action, a coalition of mayors from across the U.S., issued a statement in support of the resolution. The Immigrant Justice Network launched a campaign to “Fix ‘96” and restore rights taken from immigrants twenty years ago.

Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Families for Freedom, 1LoveMovement and the Immigrant Defense Project laid out their policy demands, which I’m reprinting here:

“BAJI and some of our closest allies are calling on Congress to roll back the 1996 laws by:

  • Removing convictions as a grounds for deportation and exclusion, including aggravated felonies and drug offenses.
  • Ending the retroactive application of the 1996 laws.
  • Restoring judicial discretion and due process for all individuals who come into contact with the criminal justice and immigration systems.
  • Ending permanent deportation.
  • Ending mandatory detention.
  • Ending police/ICE collaboration programs such as 287g.
  • Eliminating the 3 and ten year bars, which prohibit return to the U.S.
  • Providing a “right to counsel” in immigration proceedings.”

In an op-ed in The Hill, Christina Fialho and Christina Mansfield of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) describe their organization’s new book, “an anthology of poems and artwork from people impacted by immigration detention and their allies. While a pencil is not in itself political, the written word is a vehicle for spreading awareness, spurring reform, and healing ourselves and our communities.”

They quote asylum seeker Sylvester Owino, who spent nine years in immigration jail due to these Draconian laws. Owino said: “Writing about the abuses against us was the only way to let it out, slowly, so slowly.”

Immigrants and their loved ones have been letting it out slowly, over the course of twenty years. But Congress and the Executive Branch have not been listening.

Twenty years is a long time and a lot of experience to have with a set of laws that were obviously devastating from the beginning. It is a long time that created a large number of American families dissolved or devastated by these acts.

Our nation seems to be at a crossroads today on the issue of immigration and effective policy reform. Let’s never forget that immigration policy is not about an “issue,” it’s about people.

Let’s learn from what went wrong, repeal these laws in Congress, and celebrate with happiness rather than looking back in despair.

Crossposted from Medium.