Friday, May 12, 2006

DHS Stonewalls on Immigration Data

In the past year, the directors of the research center where I work (TRAC) have sued the IRS (and won), sued the OPM, and has now sued the DHS for release of records to which the public have a legal right under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The latest suit, filed this week in DC, is for information about the handling of criminal cases (arrests and convictions) of non-citizens.

[Link] The questions of what US government policy on immigration should be, and how federal immigration laws should be enforced, are currently issues of great controversy and substantial public debate in the Supreme Court, Congress, the White House, and the public. [...] Given the present debate over immigration law and immigration policy, it is essential that the public, and decision-makers in Congress and the Supreme Court, have access to the broadest possible information regarding the effects of US immigration enforcement on aliens.

I believe making this information public is important to Democratic hopes of making gains in the midterm elections.

This morning I listened to a report about San Bernadino's ballot initiative that would among other things turn landlords into immigration cops. Add this to initiatives in Colorado and Phoenix, and it's becoming clear that immigrants wanting to work is this year's version of gays wanting to marry: a local wedge issue that ought to be getting fairly dealt with at a national level, but one that is being exploited locally in order to get out the wingnut base to the polls.

This approach will only work however if rational discourse about our immigration policy and how it is being administered can be suppressed. That means keeping secret how these cases are being handled, similar to how this administration has worked to hide the treatment of prisoners at Gitmo, Abu Ghraib and in the torture palaces of eastern Europe.

For example, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has apparently "upgraded" its interpretation of the definition of aggravated felony, which is one of the grounds used to deny immigration benefits.

A term created by statute to refer to a list of crimes. A person convicted of one or more of these crimes becomes ineligible for many types of immigration benefits, such as obtaining a green card or being naturalized to become a U.S. citizen. He/she also becomes much more vulnerable to removal (deportation) from the U.S. Some of the listed crimes also require a prison sentence of a minimum length. For example, U.S. law says that a person has committed an aggravated felony if he/she is convicted of a "theft offense or burglary offense for which the term of imprisonment is at least one year." Criminal convictions in the past also count toward a decision now about whether someone has committed an aggravated felony. The list, scope, and consequences of aggravated felonies have been expanded over the years by Congress and by court decisions.  

One example is found in the case of Lopez vs. Gonzales. In this case, one of the reasons for deporting Jose Antionio Lopez was his conviction of aiding and abetting cocaine possession, a felony offense in South Dakota which would only be considered a misdemeanor under federal law.

Prior to this case, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) would only consider aggravated felony to be crimes which would have been felonies under federal law. But the BIA retroactively changed the rules to consider Lopez's crime aggravated felony and therefore grounds for deportation and denial of other rights.

This summer, the case will be taken up by the Supreme Court. TRAC feels that release of the requested information by DHS is vital in order to have a reasoned immigration debate. Which, apparently, is precisely why this administration refuses to release it.


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