1996 Deportation Law Has Some Drawbacks


The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act passed with broad bipartisan support from lawmakers eager to protect America’s borders.

But the law had unintended consequences.

Congress in 1996 expanded the list of deportable offenses to include such crimes as shoplifting and possession of small amounts of drugs. At the same time, Congress took away the power of immigration judges to review these deportations and grant relief in some cases.

The law resulted in the deportation of dangerous criminals. But it also mandated exile for law-abiding, longtime residents who committed minor crimes years ago. In some cases, adopted foreign children have been deported to “home” countries where they have no family and don’t speak the language.


“The 1996 law went too far. Our position has always been the judges should have greater discretion and authority,” said Russ Bergeron, Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman.

Every year, more than 60,000 people are deported as “criminal aliens.” Of those, about 4,000 are permanent residents, Bergeron said.

He said the deportation of criminal aliens has increased 20-fold since 1993, driven by increased space and money for INS detention and enforcement.

The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to the 1996 law in a June decision that said immigrants who pleaded guilty to crimes before 1996 have the right to get their cases reviewed in court.

Meanwhile, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has attracted bipartisan support for a bill he is sponsoring that would return the power of immigration judges to overturn deportation orders for some criminal immigrants.