Spring 2006

Panel Series on Immigration Reform Well Received by Media, Immigration Advocates

In Dec. 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 4437, The Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005. Key elements of the legislation include constructing a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, classifying illegal immigrants as criminals and thus allowing local authorities to pursue them, and severely restricting the humanitarian aid illegal immigrants receive. The controversial bill has sparked debate among policymakers, immigration advocates, the business community, labor organizations, and academics.

In January and February 2006, the Section sponsored a four-part panel series on immigration reform at the National Press Club. The series, “Fortress America: The State and Future of U.S. Immigration Law and Policy,” was initiated by the Committee on the Rights of Immigrants, along with the ABA Commission on Immigration, and was exceptionally well received by both the non-profit community and various media outlets.

Drawing experts from a broad range of professional and political backgrounds, the first panel examined current and proposed legislation aimed at comprehensive immigration reform. Panelists included Angelo Amador, U.S. Chamber of Commerce; J. Kevin Appleby , United States Conference on Catholic Bishops; Eliseo Medina, Service Employees International Union; Cecilia Munoz , National Council of La Raza; Grover Norquist , Americans for Tax Reform; and executive director, Anthony Romero,American Civil Liberties Union. Christina DeConcini of the National Immigration Forum served as moderator of the program.

Panelists discussed at length the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (HR 4437). Cecilia Munoz called the legislation an enforcement-only approach. She noted that although this is the same approach used by the U.S. for the past fifteen years, its ineffectiveness is evident by the pace of undocumented migrants, which has held steady at about 300,000 to 400,000 a year.

Panelists agreed that provisions making it illegal for humanitarians to give aid to undocumented workers is also a problem and could be disastrous. Kevin Appleby articulated the impact it could have on religious organizations, such as churches that offer food or housing. Anthony Romero cautioned that if the provision is interpreted broadly, it could also prohibit the ability of lawyers to provide assistance to undocumented workers. Provisions that allow local law enforcement to pursue illegal immigrants also was of concern to the panelists. Grover Norquist said he was concerned that these provisions might create a slippery slope with regard to the nationalization of local police, worrying that it would first start to jeopardize civil rights and liberties.

The second panel, held on Jan. 26, focused on asylum and refugee issues and included panelists B o Cooper, Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, LLP; Mark Hetfield, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; Cheryl Little, Florida Immigrant Advocacy; Jonathan Nelson, The Christian Legal Society; Rachel B. Tiven, Immigration Equality; Wendy Young, the Commission on Refugee Women and Children; and Stephen Yale-Loehr, True, Walsh & Miller, LLP. Moderating the panel was Eleanor Acer of Human Rights First.

Panelists reviewed the current asylum system and made recommendations as to how it could be improved. Mark Hetfield pointed to a study conducted by the bi-partisan U.S. Commission on International and Religious Freedom, that examined asylum seekers and expedited removal proceedings. It found that while the Department of Homeland Security trains its officers in the requirements and correct procedures to protect asylum seekers and refugees, it does not verify that procedures are being followed. Rachel B. Tiven highlighted the problems lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender immigrants face when they try to claim refuge in the United States. She said these immigrants are often too afraid to tell an official why they are seeking asylum. Stephen Yale-Loeher pointed to the lack of resources for Board of Immigration Appeals members, noting that the Justice Department has cut the number of BIA members at a time when the Board is attempting to reduce a backlog of appeals.

A third panel, held on Feb. 3, was moderated by Andrea Black of Detention Watch Network and focused on detention and removal proceedings. Deanna Burdine, a whistleblower and former employee of the Department of Homeland Security, and Malik Ndula, once a former detainee himself and now working at Keeping Hope Alive, spoke of the prison-like detention facilities and the need for oversight by the government. Both emphasized that contributing to the lack of oversight is the increase in privately run detention facilities, and the financial incentives for these companies to detain immigrants.

Judy Rabinovitz of the Immigrants’ Rights Project cited a study she conducted in the early 1990’s which found that the lack of a right to counsel in detention, the often remote locations of detention centers, and detention center conditions make it very difficult for immigrants to pursue their cases. She observed that none of these problems have improved since her report was released, but the population of detained immigrants has grown from five or six thousand to over 20,000. She, along with other panelists, supported alternatives to detention, such as the National Institute of Justice’s four-year program of simple contract and notification of hearings, which had 91 percent of people return for their hearings.

Other panelists of the third program included, Judy Greene, Justice Strategies; Joanne Kelsey, the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children; Chris Nugent, Holland & Knight; Aarti Shahani, Families for Freedom; and Nina Siulc, Vera Institute of Justice.

At the fourth and final panel on Feb. 23, ABA President, Michael Greco, addressed the audience regarding the recent immigration policies adopted by the ABA at the 2006 Midyear Meeting. The panel focused on the “brain drain” occurring as a result of restrictive immigration policies. Ben Johnson of the Immigration Policy Center and a Commissioner with the ABA Commission on Immigration served as moderator. Panelists included Bill Wul f, National Academy of Engineering; Debra Stewart, Council of Graduate Schools; Daryl Buffenstein, Past President, American Immigration Lawyers Association; and Roger Bowen, American Association of University Professors.

There was agreement among the panelists that in order to ensure the economic security of the U.S., we must be able to attract and retain the brightest minds from around the world. Debra Stewart noted that as it stands now, graduate students applying for visas in the United States must demonstrate the strong intent to return to their home country after completion of their degree. She supports legislation currently in the Senate, the Pace Act, which would allow doctoral students in the stem fields to remain in the United States after graduation as long as they are working in their field. Daryl Buffenstein remarked that the business sector is also feeling the “brain drain” as there are a limited number visas available for foreign-born workers and the process to obtain one can take years. He maintained that this problem is causing many businesses to move highly-skilled jobs to other countries where talent is available.

The panel series was well attended and included coverage by many media outlets including, C-SPAN 2, CNN, CNN En Espanol, Aztec America TV, Television Mexico, Air America, Voice of America, National Public Radio, McClatchey Newspapers, Los Angeles Times, Government Executive Magazine Associated Press, Newsweek, Reuters, Media General, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times.

To listen to audio files of the programs, view pictures, or read transcripts, log onto the Section website at www.abanet.org/irr/committees/immigrants/panels.html.

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