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How many legal immigrants are we deporting?

How many <i>legal</i> immigrants are we deporting?
U.S. immigration agents talk to family members at a San Fernando Valley home after they placed a detainee under arrest in 2012. (Los Angeles Times)

My partner, Graham, became an American citizen last month — six years after the government tried to deport him. He's originally from Scotland, came here legally and obtained a green card in 1999, but was ordered out of the country because of a misdemeanor conviction for drug possession.

Graham spent five months in immigration detention before a judge ruled that he could remain in the U.S., a harrowing experience that still haunts him today. Because detainees without documents are usually deported quickly, many of the people he was locked up with had some legal status — though few rights as they fought to stay with their families.

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One man he befriended was an electrician from Philadelphia who was eventually deported to Northern Ireland because of a bar fight, which happened 11 years before immigration agents showed up at his home.

He was brought to America as a baby, had a green card and three young sons (all U.S. citizens). But because he pleaded guilty to that assault charge long ago — with no notion of the consequences — he was exiled far away from his loved ones.

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Yet stories such as these don't get much media attention, in part because the government doesn't release statistics about how many people facing deportation have green cards. In fact, when media outlets report that the Obama administration has deported more than 2.5 million "illegal" or "undocumented" immigrants, that's actually incorrect, because those statistics include legal residents and people with valid visas — not just immigrants who crossed the border without permission.

That misperception has fed the anti-immigrant furor that was also rampant in 1996, when Congress passed two bills that dramatically expanded the list of crimes (including shoplifting) that could lead to deportation.

In the lead-up to the presidential election, politicians wanted to show that they were tough on terrorism and crime, blaming immigrants for those threats. But even many lawyers were unaware of the new rules — until the Department of Homeland Security began enforcing them after Sept. 11. Because the laws were applied retroactively, immigrants faced deportation for crimes they'd committed decades earlier, and judges lost much of their ability to decide cases based on individual factors.

Although some people believe that immigrants who commit any crime deserve deportation — regardless of their status or how long they've lived here — anyone who values American ideals of due process and justice should be disturbed by the way people are treated once they get sucked into our detention system. It is far from fair or humane.

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Data the government has released (after lengthy legal battles) suggest that we’re spending a lot of money on cases that shouldn’t be priorities.


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Graham spent four months at Rikers Island in New York City before he got picked up by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who quickly transferred him to New Jersey and then a prison in Pennsylvania. Those first few weeks in ICE custody were traumatizing, especially because he had little contact with the outside world.

He had limited access to the phone, and when he was allowed to make calls, they cost $1 a minute (collect). Important legal documents addressed to him were never delivered, and he had to purchase stamps and envelopes to send mail. But he wasn't granted access to the money deposited on his commissary account until he'd been in detention for more than three weeks.

At one point, he was awakened in the middle of the night, shackled with other men and told he was being moved again — probably to Texas, where the judges are less likely to rule in immigrants' favor. For reasons that remain unclear, a guard pulled him out of line and locked him up in solitary confinement for several days.

ICE officers kept telling him that the best way to end this nightmare was to sign papers agreeing to leave the U.S. forever, after living here legally for almost 20 years.

Graham was lucky that I hired a lawyer to represent him before he gave up or was transferred again, but many immigrants are deported without ever speaking to an attorney. For immigration proceedings, non-citizens do not have a right to a lawyer, but if they can afford to hire one they are far more likely to win their cases. Even legal permanent residents are often subject to mandatory, indefinite detention while they wait for a final hearing or appeal a decision — a process that sometimes takes years.

The Supreme Court will soon review ICE's resistance to granting immigrants bond hearings. For now, though, detaining people without proof that they're a flight risk largely benefits for-profit prison companies, at a cost to taxpayers of nearly $2 billion a year.

ICE is notoriously secretive about sharing statistics, but data the government has released (after lengthy legal battles) suggest that we're spending a lot of money on cases that shouldn't be priorities.

From last October through July, immigration judges granted just 43% of the deportation orders the government sought, according to records obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University — down from 70% in 2011. Another TRAC report found that ICE has failed to focus on serious criminals, despite promising to do so in 2014. Only half of the immigrants that ICE asked local law enforcement to detain late last year had any criminal conviction; the most common offenses were DUIs, assault and selling marijuana.

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Though there's no way to know how many of these people had legal status, it's a troubling sign that we don't have such basic information about the individuals we're deporting, sometimes for minor mistakes. Sentencing someone to a life in exile is an extremely harsh punishment to impose, which also affects many U.S. citizen children, spouses and parents, so it shouldn't happen through a secretive process that grants few rights to those caught in its grip.

My partner got a second chance and proved he earned it by overcoming his addiction, but far too many immigrants don't get the fair hearing a judge gave him.

Susan Stellin is a reporter and coauthor of the memoir "Chancers," written with Graham MacIndoe. They received a 2014 fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation for their project American Exile.

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