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Eric Holder and the Department of Justice Need to Stop Persecuting Immigrants

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Cross-posted from The Hill:

Attorney General Eric Holder pushed back on Republicans’ attempt to micromanage the administration at a House Judiciary Committee hearing.  He said: “There is a vast amount of discretion that a president has — and, more specifically, that an attorney general has.  But that discretion has to be used in an appropriate way so that you’re acting consistent with the aims of the statute but at the same time making sure that you are acting in a way that is consistent with our values, consistent with the Constitution and protecting the American people.”

So why is the DOJ using its discretion to criminalize and prosecute ordinary immigrants?

Living in the country without papers is a civil violation, which can lead to deportation (at the hands of DHS).  But entering the country illegally can be prosecuted as a crime by DOJ.  Re-entry after deportation can be a federal felony.  The DOJ should focus on drug dealers, human traffickers, and others who enter the U.S. to commit crimes.  Instead, they are using these laws against ordinary immigrants reuniting with families.

While the Department of Homeland Security has been under fire for years because of its deportation policies, the Department of Justice has flown under the radar.

The administration has a choice in these cases; DOJ doesn’t have to prosecute them.  DHS can even grant a stay of removal to people with roots here.  Instead, the Obama Justice Department is following in the footsteps of Bush and taking these moms and dads to federal criminal court.  With a misdemeanor or felony conviction, they go to prison for months or years and are then deported, ineligible to return for at least twenty years—if ever—and disqualified from immigration reform.

According to the New York Times, deportations after conviction for illegal entry or re-entry tripled under Attorney General Eric Holder.  Immigration charges are the number one category of prosecution in federal criminal court—52 percent of all cases according to TRAC.  Drug offenses are a distant second at 11.7 percent.

As former ICE Director John Sandweg recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Many of these people have been in the United States for a decade or more. They often have spouses who are U.S. citizens and have never been convicted of a criminal offense. Frequently, they were deported years earlier and returned to this country to reunite with their families. As a result, focusing ICE’s effort on them disproportionately separates parents and children, breadwinners from families, spouse from spouse.”  Sandweg recommends removing them from the DHS “priority” list.  But the Justice Department needs to stop prosecuting them, too.

It’s well-established that DHS has been trumpeting its increased deportation of “criminals” using an overly-broad definition.  In this case, the Administration is actually creating criminals before deporting them.  TRAC reports that the higher proportion of “criminals” deported under Obama come directly from individuals convicted of immigration (167 percent) and traffic (191 percent) offenses.  Alfredo Ramos Gallegos of Ohio could become just another “criminal” deported by the Obama administration, unless reforms at the Justice Department happen soon.

In February, Alfredo was going to the mall with his daughter and friends when Mentor, Ohio police pulled them over.  Alfredo was not driving the van, but police asked for his papers anyway, and called the U.S. Border Patrol when he had none.  Border Patrol agents from Erie, PA traveled an hour and a half to arrest Alfredo and take him to jail.  U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton charged Alfredo with illegal re-entry, a federal felony, alleging that he had been deported fifteen years ago.  Alfredo sat in jail for over a month while his U.S. citizen children and ex-wife cried, worried, and organized back home.

After 150 community members traveled from Ohio to Pennsylvania and rallied outside the courthouse, Alfredo was released with an ankle bracelet and a stay of deportation from ICE.  But, incredibly, the Justice Department is still prosecuting him.  If convicted, Alfredo will go to prison for months or even years, and then face separation from his family again.

When I look at Alfredo I see a 24-year resident of Ohio; father of two U.S. citizen children and stepfather of one; respected member of the community; and victim of racial profiling by police.  When the Justice Department looks at Alfredo they see a “felon.”  If they send Alfredo to prison and deport him with a felony record, this country will not be any safer, but another American family will be destroyed.

Attorney General Eric Holder has the power to change this, but only if he uses his “vast amount of discretion . . . in a way that is consistent with our values, consistent with the Constitution and protecting the American people.”