What Does the New Congress Mean for Immigration and Refugees?

New beginnings are normally met with optimism and hopes for something better to come. The start of the 112th Congress, however, provides far less pleasant anticipation for those working to support immigrant survivors of human rights abuses. Health professionals and advocates must maintain their guard and act to ensure that circumstances do not become worse for their patients as the new Congress looks to enact even tighter restrictions on immigration status and care for refugees. A change of leadership in the House of Representatives has brought to prominence both new and old faces. For the next two years, the House Judiciary Committee, which reviews most immigration-related legislation, will be headed by Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas. Rep. Smith is, unfortunately, familiar to advocates for immigrants as he is credited with creating and shepherding to passage the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA). This bill was the source of many of the laws and policies that imperil vulnerable immigrants today. IIRIRA put into place expansive requirements that resulted in mandatory detention for numerous classes of immigrants, including people seeking asylum at the border. Border patrol and immigration enforcement agents were stripped of the discretion they previously had to determine when concerns about an individual’s dangerousness or likelihood of noncompliance merited the expense and trouble of detention. As a result, the use of immigration detention skyrocketed – along with reports of human rights abuses of detainees and government spending on maintaining and defending an unnecessarily punitive and arbitrary system of incarceration. In 1996, the U.S. detained an average of just over 9,000 immigrants each day. By 2009, the average daily immigrant detainee population swelled to 32,000, thanks in large part to Rep. Smith and IIRIRA. By 2009, the U.S. was also defending against several lawsuits regarding medical neglect in detention, such as one filed by the survivors of Francisco Castaneda, who was denied a biopsy for nearly a year, by which time it was too late to save him from dying of penile cancer. Rep. Smith’s IIRIRA was also responsible for the creation of the asylum filing deadline. This provision requires that survivors of persecution file a request for asylum within one year of their arrival in the U.S. Rigid interpretation of the rule has resulted in denial of tens of thousands of legitimate asylum applications from people who were too frightened or traumatized to ask for protection upon arrival, or who were simply unaware of the process and their eligibility for protection. A recent report from Human Rights First tells the stories of several of the deadline’s innocent victims: for example, a Burmese democracy activist was jailed for several years before managing to escape to the U.S. He did not speak English, however, and did not learn about the existence of asylum protection until, years after arriving in the U.S., he happened to meet some other Burmese refugees. The immigration courts believed he would be in danger if returned to Burma, but denied his asylum application solely because it was not filed within one year of his arrival. Though nearly fifteen years of practice has produced clear evidence that the filing deadline results in the forcible return of at-risk immigrants to dangerous conditions, it has proven extremely difficult to amend legislation once enacted, and so the rule remains in place. Rep. Smith will work in concert for the next two years with a newer face: Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who was first elected in 2002, and will chair the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law. In the past several years Rep. King has voiced his disregard for the civil and human rights of immigrants. In June 2010, he endorsed the practice of racial profiling in law enforcement in a House speech about Arizona’s new law empowering local police to enforce immigration laws, saying:

Some claim that the Arizona law will bring about racial discrimination profiling. First let me say, Mr. Speaker, that profiling has always been an important component of legitimate law enforcementit’s not wrong to use race or other indicators for the sake of identifying those that are violating the law.

Even worse, in a 2006 House floor speech discussing an expansion of fencing along the U.S.’s southern border, Rep. King equated potential border-crossers with animals, implying that electrifying the border fence would not be a big deal because, “We do that with livestock all the time.”Rep. King was also an enthusiastic supporter of the REAL ID Act of 2005. Among other enforcement-minded provisions, REAL ID expanded application of the “material support to terrorism” ban, which has been overzealously interpreted to bar from the U.S. health professionals who incidentally cared for members of suspect organizations in the course of their everyday practice in hospitals and clinics.Reps. Smith and King can be expected to usher in a new era of harsh immigration enforcement proposals highly likely to result in threats to the health and well-being of vulnerable people and their families. Health professionals of conscience must stand ready to oppose these efforts, and to use their public platform to re-focus the debate on our country’s moral commitment and legal obligation to help people in need of humanitarian assistance. Update: House Judiciary Committee assignments were formally announced on Friday, January 7, 2011, and in a surprise move, new Committee Chairman Rep. Smith chose California Representative Elton Gallegly instead of Rep. Steve King of Iowa to chair the subcommittee concerned with immigration and refugees. It is normal practice to install the former ranking minority member of the committee (in this case, Rep. King) as leader when the balance of power shifts in Congress, and the passing over of Rep. King for the chairmanship is, as Congressional Quarterly reported on Friday, “an indication that GOP House leaders may be concerned that [Rep. King’s] statements could be damaging to the party’s standing.” PHR applauds Republicans’ decision to decline to nominate to a position of influence a member who, like Rep. King, has demonstrated disturbing disregard for the fundamental rights and dignity of immigrants.

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