By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2006
The legislation approved by the Senate yesterday would offer many illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship. But advocates of expanded immigration rights complain that "hidden traps" woven through the bill's 300 pages erode significant due-process protections for all foreign-born people living in the United States.
A coalition of civil rights, religious and legal groups says the legislation would make it easier for the government to detain or deport immigrants -- whether in the country legally or not -- while making it more difficult for them to prove they deserve asylum or naturalization.
One provision would add to the list of acts considered "aggravated felonies" under immigration law -- automatic grounds for removal from the country. The rewritten list would include carrying fraudulent documents. According to immigration and civil rights lawyers, that change could prompt the government to expel people who use such documents to escape oppressive regimes or those who have been working in the United States for years under false Social Security numbers.
Another change would give federal courts less latitude to review the cases of immigrants who have applied for asylum or citizenship and been turned down by immigration boards. Currently, U.S. circuit courts consider such appeals from scratch. Under the bill, courts could consider only whether the immigration agency had any reasonable grounds for its decision -- not whether its decision was correct.
The bill also would give Border Patrol officers new powers to jail and deport, without a judge's review, immigrants suspected of having recently crossed into the country illegally. Border officers would be allowed to make such decisions on their own for any foreigners, except Mexicans, they stop within 100 miles of the Mexican or Canadian line. The provision essentially would cement in law a controversial policy that the Department of Homeland Security has phased in during the past few years.
Critics predict that it would lead to racial profiling, and they complain that the enforcement area is so wide it would encompass several major cities, including San Diego, El Paso and Detroit.
The changes indicate that the bill is far more intricate than its public image as a measure that is relatively friendly to immigrants, particularly in comparison with an immigration measure passed by the House late last year.
The merits of the changes are a matter of intense debate.
"We had counted on senators taking the time to eliminate . . . the unwise and unsound provisions that strike due process," said Timothy D. Sparapani, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union. "And the Senate failed to do its job."
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that favors low immigration, disagreed. "The limits on what the other side calls 'due process' are actually essential if we are going to get control of the immigration system," he said.
Krikorian said so many illegal immigrants are crossing into the country that the immigration and judicial systems do not have the capacity to review every case. "We need to restrict the amount of access illegals have to the court system. There is nothing morally problematic about it. It's not a criminal matter. We are simply deciding whether they should stay in the country or be sent home," he said.
Late yesterday afternoon, the Senate removed from the bill one provision that had alarmed immigration rights groups. An amendment sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) eliminated a section that would have made it more difficult for immigrants to avoid being deported while they are appealing asylum or other applications.
Still, Paul M. Igasaki, executive director of a coalition called the Rights Working Group, said that, on balance, the Senate measure represents "a very serious deterioration of the rights of immigrants."
In several instances, the Senate essentially embraced the due-process restrictions included in the House bill. In at least a few ways, however, senators included provisions that are stricter than those created by the House.
Nancy Morawetz, a law professor at New York University, said that in the Senate version legal residents would be counted as having committed an aggravated felony if they had been convicted repeatedly of driving under the influence of alcohol, even if the convictions happened years ago.
And only the Senate bill, Morawetz said, would create penalties for legal residents if they do not notify the government when they move. She said the requirement has existed for years, but many immigrants do not know they are supposed to file an address change and the federal government has done a poor job of keeping track.