News Analysis By William Fisher
As the Justice Department remains on a collision course with the State of Arizona‘s tough new anti-immigrant law, and myriad additional legal problems develop for Arizona’s Republican governor, President Barack Obama has launched a new robust rhetorical initiative to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
The president was unclear, however, as to the timing of Congressional action. It was generally believed that Obama would talk about immigration reform between now and the election of the next Congress in 2010. It was thought unlikely he would do anything significant on this contentious issue that could present Congressional Democrats with difficult votes.
Nonetheless, President Obama told a Washington audience Thursday that he remains committed to comprehensive immigration legislation that will include a strong focus on border security but also will preserve America's legacy as "a nation of immigrants . . . who believed that there was a place that they could be, at long last, free to work and worship and live their lives in peace."
The President appears to be saying that while the politics of the thorny issue may demand that legislation waits a bit, it is too important to be kicked down the road. He pledged to push for immigration reform relentlessly from now on.
Observers believe he wants to make good on a major campaign promise and that he decidedly has his eye on the ways history will remember him.
In a speech at American University today, Obama emphasized the need for federal immigration reform that respects the civil rights of those in this country.
Among the organizations pressing for quick action on the issue is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which strongly supports reforms to U.S. immigration policy and calls on political leaders to ensure that any legislation protects the civil rights, civil liberties and human rights of everyone in the United States, regardless of his or her immigration status.
Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU, said, “We commend President Obama for recognizing the need to reform our immigration system on the federal level rather than allow a patchwork of state and local laws that lead to the violation of civil rights and alienation of communities from law enforcement.”
He added,” The recently enacted Arizona law, which the ACLU and others are challenging in court, is a prime example of misguided laws that inevitably lead to egregious racial profiling and discrimination. We urge the Obama administration to bring a federal challenge to the Arizona law through litigation as soon as possible and to take all actions in its power to prevent the law's implementation.
"President Obama is also correct that heavy border security is not a singular answer to addressing immigration issues. Expanded border enforcement could cause more civil liberties abuses in U.S. communities on the southwest border. Any border enforcement must be conducted in a constitutional manner with strict accountability and oversight to avoid abuse.
"Expanding E-Verify, an electronic employment verification program promoted by the president today, is not an answer but would lead to discrimination, burden American workers and deny employment to authorized workers.
"We encourage President Obama to work with Congress to implement immigration policies that respect the Constitution and the civil liberties of all within our borders."
As Obama calls for bipartisan reform, Human Rights First stresses importance of safeguards in detention and protecting refugees' access to fair asylum proceedings
Responding to President Ocala’s speech at American University, Human Rights First today emphasized that any immigration reform package must reflect U.S. values and commitment to refugee protection.
"As the President works with lawmakers to address the many complex issues that will arise during a debate over comprehensive immigration reform, he must ensure that America upholds its longstanding commitment to refugee protection – which he emphasized strongly just two weeks ago on the occasion of World Refugee Day," said Human Rights First's Annie Sock.
"The Obama Administration and Congress should ensure safeguards to prevent arbitrary detention and protect refugees' access to fair asylum procedures."
Several bills pending in Congress already include key improvements to the asylum and refugee systems that should be incorporated into any immigration reform legislation. Human Rights First continues to urge President Obama and Congress to put into law measures including the following:
Eliminate the one-year asylum-filing deadline that bars refugees with well-founded fears of persecution from asylum; remove barriers that prevent some asylum seekers from receiving prompt review by the immigration courts of detention decisions so that these asylum seekers are not subject to prolonged and arbitrary detention; clarify the "particular social group" basis and "nexus" requirements for asylum so that the asylum requests of vulnerable individuals are adjudicated fairly and consistently; and Protect refugees from inappropriate exclusion by refining the definitions of "terrorist activity" and "terrorist organization" so that U.S. immigration laws target actual terrorists, as opposed to hurting thousands of legitimate refugees who are not guilty of any wrongdoing and pose no threat to American security.
In a related development reported by the Miami Herald newspaper, Federal immigration officials now have the ability to identify potentially deportable foreign nationals booked into Florida county jails on suspicion of crimes.
Michael W. Meade, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office director in Miami, announced Tuesday that booking centers in all 67 Florida counties are now linked to ICE's biometric databases for quicker identification of immigration records.
Meade's disclosure marks an expansion in Florida of ICE's Secure Communities initiative, a controversial program the agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security deems vital to its efforts to quickly identify foreign nationals who have been convicted or charged.
"This capability means local law enforcement and ICE are automatically alerted when potentially deportable criminal aliens come into state and local custody," Meade told a news conference at ICE's office in Doral.
"If this program were really targeting hardened criminals and making us safer, as ICE claims, I imagine most everyone would support it," said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, long a critic of Secure Communities.
"People arrested for any reason, including traffic violations and loitering, are caught in ICE's net — including U.S. citizens."
Under President Barack Obama, ICE has reconfigured its stated immigration enforcement priority, ostensibly targeting foreign nationals convicted of crimes committed in the United States.
Previously, immigration authorities detained and deported criminal and noncriminal immigrants without distinction.
Ali Noorani, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum and Chair of the Reform Immigration FOR America campaign, praised the Obama speech but said, “Republicans must offer more than tough talk and tired "border first" talking points.”
He added, “Border security is a necessary but insufficient part of getting immigration reform right. It does nothing to stop the jobs magnet or bring the 11 million unauthorized immigrants into the system legally. And it does nothing to reform our legal immigration system so that it can respond flexibly to future labor market needs. We don't need window dressing, more tough talk, or more empty gestures. We need leadership on comprehensive reform.”
The American Bar Association has also filed a “friend of the court” brief seeking an injunction against Arizona’s law authorizing police to stop and detain individuals unless they can produce proof of citizenship or legal immigration status.