Posted by on June 20, 2013 in Blog

By: Matt Haugen

Summer 2013 Intern

As Congress debates comprehensive immigration reform, many Republican House Members are attempting to instead push through piecemeal legislation in order to avoid concessions like a pathway to citizenship for the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the US.  Among the first and most worrisome of these bills is H.R. 2278: Representative Trey Gowdy’s (R-SC) “Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act” (SAFE Act). The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony last Thursday on the SAFE Act from a panel of eight witnesses. The full hearing is available in two parts here.The panel consisted of six witnesses in favor of the legislation and two opposed. Most of the testimony and questioning revolved around the two witnesses opposing the SAFE Act: Ms. Karen Tumlin of the National Immigration Law Center and Ms. Clarissa Martinez de Castro of the National Council of La Raza. The SAFE Act looks to crack down on undocumented immigrants by empowering local and state law enforcement agencies instead of relying purely on ICE agents. Indeed, Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) stressed the need for internal enforcement of pre-existing immigration laws before addressing new approaches.

Following witnesses’ testimony, Representative John Conyers (D-MI) cautioned against “overcriminalization” of the community at large, questioning if law enforcement could maintain priority in the face of immigration enforcement. Rep. Conyers recalled how prior legislation similar to the SAFE Act had given rise to racial profiling in places like Alabama and Arizona and argued that members of immigrant communities and communities of color would be too afraid to report crimes, leading to a high number of unreported crimes and thereby endangering communities. Indeed, Ms. Tumlin testified that she noticed “patterns of discrimination” within this legislation which deeply concerned her. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) similarly railed against the bill citing the complexity of immigration law, questioning if law enforcement could reliably handle the additional responsibilities.

Rep. Lofgren pointed out that even the sheriffs testifying on the panel could not correctly assess questions of legality when it came to hypothetical cases she presented. The real problem with this bill, though, is that it permits state and local governments to pass their own immigration laws and expand the 287g program to every state and countless localities. By enabling individual state legislatures and local governments to pass individualized immigration laws, not only is the ability to enforce immigration law totally disrupted, but the ability to abide by these laws becomes that much more difficult. Furthermore, this bill would make undocumented immigrants felons overnight, including minors brought here by their parents and foreign students who unwittingly change their major and forget to update their F-1s. The criminalization of earnest, often innocent, undocumented workers is a far cry from the pathway to citizenship.

Markup of the bill lasted several hours on Tuesday and began with protesters being escorted out of the committee room by Capitol police. As the bill passed committee and could potentially make it to the floor for a vote by the entire House, it is important to focus on the disruptive consequences this bill will have on minority communities due to the inevitable increase in discriminatory tactics used by local law enforcement. This backwards piece of legislation does everything wrong, from decentralizing immigration policy, to making undocumented immigrants in the country immediate felons. As noted in a statement released by AAI yesterday: “The issue of securing our borders is an important one; while purportedly its objective, the SAFE Act does little to advance that goal and undermines bipartisan, thoughtful efforts to reform our immigration system.”

This bill fails to address the complexity of immigration law and its focus on enforcement-only policies disrupts a humanistic approach to comprehensive reform. Rep. Conyers (D-MI), Ranking Member on the Judiciary Committee, said it best on Tuesday: “This bill is dead on arrival and cannot be fixed.” I couldn’t agree more. 

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