Immigration Reform—Signs of Change on the Horizon

Although Congress continues to devote most of its energy to the slow slog of healthcare reform, the country is awash in informal signals that immigration reform is on its way. Our friends at Bender’s Immigration Bulletin have documented the following:

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Sheriff Joe Arpaio, of Maricopa County Arizona, describes himself as “America’s Toughest Cop” and wrote a popular book about his “no-nonsense” approach to dealing with crime. But in the eyes of some, Arpaio began to overreach: the ACLU brought a suit against him and some of his deputies for wrongfully detaining a U.S. citizen and a legal permanent resident, presumably because the officers believed the men to be undocumented immigrants.

Arpaio’s zeal might have won him the adoration of those with vehemently anti-immigrant feelings, but the federal government is not as impressed. Earlier this week the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department made an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security to strip Arpaio’s deputies “of their ICE agent status to act as federal immigration authorities.” After years of increasingly vitriolic anti-immigrant sentiment and the rise of groups like the Minute Men —self-appointed border patrol vigilantes—this is a small but significant setback for those who would treat anyone of Hispanic phenotype in the proximity of the U.S.-Mexico border as suspicious.

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In another sign of change, the Obama Administration is continuing beginning to show some divergence from Bush-era policies. The AP reports that the Department of Homeland Security is considering a new plan that would confine illegal immigrants subject to deportation according to their “safety or flight risk.”

Though Secretary Janet Napolitano insisted that “immigration enforcement measures continue unabated,” she and other officials acknowledged that many people currently held in detention centers have no criminal or violent history, others are being housed as asylum seekers, and still others are not even illegal immigrants but rather people mistakenly detained.

Under the plan, detainees with violent or criminal backgrounds who pose a safety threat would be detained in jail-like settings (the norm), while less risky/dangerous detainees would be equipped with tracking devices or even housed in old hotels or nursing homes. These measures would not only address troubling trends toward detainee abuse but would also reduce overall detention costs. Detaining nearly 380,000 immigrants cost nearly $2 billion in 2008, and by some estimates it costs $100 a day to keep one detainee in jail; alternative measures would cost nearly one-tenth as much.

These changes on the margin show the impact of a steady but increasingly voluminous call for serious immigration reform, both in terms of reasonable enforcement and also in addressing the real issue of the millions of undocumented immigrants who are not currently detained. Politically, treating the former must precede addressing the latter, at least to Obama’s mind. “Obama has said tough enforcement policies are essential to winning approval from Congress for any deal to grant legal status,” the Washington Post explains. By balancing a willingness to “crack down” and enforce immigration laws rigorously with a desire to treat detainees in a dignified manner, the Obama Administration can amass the political capital required to reform our immigration system to make it more prudent, cost-effective, and just.

If you want to know how upcoming immigration reform can help you or your loved ones, please contact us at our Las Vegas or Reno offices.

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