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Menendez-Kennedy Bill Would Restore a Little Humanity to an Inhumane System

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After the death of comprehensive immigration reform legislation last June, Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), called a bunch of immigration advocates and business lobbyists into a room to announce that he was about to unleash major pain on our communities.

Chertoff told us that the immigration bill’s failure meant he was going to ratchet up immigration enforcement across the country. It was clear to me that he blamed the advocates-not the Republican Party-for the loss in the Senate, and was out for revenge.

Chertoff made good on at least half his promise, and over the last year he launched a major offensive against immigrants in their homes and workplaces. The Administration has won big headlines for arresting record numbers of immigrants in worksite raids, while comparatively few employers have felt the heat and serious labor law violations have gone unpunished. Immigration SWAT teams have blanketed communities across the nation, pounding on doors and arresting anyone they find who is undocumented. Many times, children are the ones who answer the doors, only to see their parents treated like criminals and taken away.

Every time I read about another raid, my heart sinks a little lower. This is not the country I love; this is not the United States of America. We see broken laws and we fix them. We don’t turn up the pain on our own communities-our own families-in retaliation for politicians’ failure to pass a badly-needed reform law.

Last week, Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA) introduced the “Protect Citizens and Residents from Unlawful Raids and Detention Act,” S. 3594. Building on the Menendez-Lofgren “Detainee Basic Medical Care Act” (S. 3005/H.R. 5950), the new Menendez-Kennedy bill would make a number of changes to the way ICE manages immigration detention and conducts raids in workplaces, homes, and communities. It includes common sense provisions like ensuring U.S. citizens are not arrested during immigration raids, social services personnel are ready to help children whose parents are taken by ICE, and exploited workers are not deported before they can testify against their abusive employer.

The bill does not call for an end to immigration raids, although we all know the Administration’s raids policy is not going to fix illegal immigration or get the system under control. As Secretary Chertoff’s remarks last year betrayed, these raids are more about cowboy politics than effective policy. No, the Menendez-Kennedy bill is simply about reigning in the way Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) handles its business. It is a very modest measure that asks ICE to exercise a bit of humanity, and a bit of common sense, as it goes about its campaign of immigration enforcement.

A few months ago I was in Postville, Iowa, talking with local families and residents impacted by the now-infamous immigration raid at the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in May. Women who were arrested during the raid told of being surrounded by ICE agents carrying guns, screaming at them and calling them rats. Children described how they felt hearing the insect wings of ICE helicopters flying over their school. They knew it was Immigration, coming to take their parents, and there was nothing they could do. Months later, they are still sifting through their emotions from that fateful day and trying to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Is this what Secretary Chertoff had in mind when he called us in last year? I hope not. I hope he will search his soul and find the will to support the Menendez-Kennedy bill. But given what I’ve seen, and the way ICE and DHS have reacted to any suggestion that they treat immigrants like humans-even as they enforce the law-I’m not holding my breath.