How Immigration Reform Will Let Families Reunite Without Becoming Criminals

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) study released this week found that 85,000 immigrants were prosecuted for illegal entry or re-entry in 2013. The three main reasons that HRW found for illegal entry or re-entry were “to seek work, to reunite with family…, or to flee violence or sometimes persecution abroad.” Illegal entry is a misdemeanor punishable with a maximum six-month jail sentence, but illegal re-entrants can receive sentences that vary between two years and twenty years for immigrants who have prior aggravated felonies. The study recommends that immigration violators to be given criminal charges only when they are convicted for serious, violent felonies.

Desperation to reunite with family often drives immigrants to risk death and attempt border crossings. The sobering reality of why illegal re-entry continues can be summarized by one migrant deported to Mexico who said, “My heart is there. My body is here.” From the time of Operation Streamline — an effort in which federal officials expedited the process of sentencing 40 to 80 immigrants at a time in a mass-deportation trial — criminal prosecutions and imprisonment were required for immigrants who were unlawfully present. In these processes, immigrants who often times do not understand the extent of their criminal charges and are rushed by lawyers to sign a paper announcing their guilt, are charged with a misdemeanor offense after the first conviction and then with a felony charge if they are caught again with illegal re-entry.

Although international human rights law suggests prosecuting undocumented immigrants with civil, not criminal charges, there are no explicit prohibitions for the use of criminal sanctions against illegal re-entrants. As a result, an immigrant are still be treated as a criminal despite not being a public safety threat.

Federal prosecutions of immigration-related offenses have made illegal re-entries the top criminal charge for undocumented immigrants who are caught coming into the U.S. In 2010, “twenty percent of defendants charged with illegal re-entry had prior felony convictions for violent offenses,” yet criminal convictions have skyrocketed by 227 percent in a ten-year period. Many of these immigrants are seeking to reunite with their loved ones, so an immigration bill should frame its priority on not criminalizing family reunification.

A House immigration reform bill has not come out yet, but GOP members have been focused on approaching immigration through a piecemeal process that eliminates the naturalization process. Without a path to citizenship however, important sticking points like family reunification would be made more difficult because of the long wait times that immigrants have to go through in order to see their relatives.

Although Sen. Grassley (R-IA) had sought to maximize penalties for people charged with illegal entry and reentry through his failed amendment, the current Senate immigration bill still would include harsh consequences. The House bill, while unknown, would likely take a similar penalizing attitude as hinted by more senior ranking Republican committee members who dispenses with a family reunification concept in lieu of a chain migration effect.