A growing chorus of criticism is being levied at Congress for failing to pass legislation that would bring stability to Dreamers but moving swiftly to act on legislation that would make it easier to kick out immigrants suspected of illegal gang activity.
The latest salvo took place Wednesday, when Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, fired off a letter to Congress urging members to oppose the “Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act.”
“Only a week after the elimination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, we are deeply disappointed that Congress’s first legislative response is to further erode due process protections for immigrants and put them at an even greater risk of deportation,” Gupta said in the letter.
Among other things, Gupta criticizes the Criminal Alien Gang Removal Act — technically known as H.R. 3697 — for how it “would subject people who have never committed a crime to deportation” and create a new definition of a criminal gang that is “unworkably vague.”
“It shifts the burden to individuals to prove they did not know they were affiliated with a gang that committed qualifying offenses, even though proving such a negative is often impossible,” Gupta argues.
The text of the law defines a “criminal gang” as “an ongoing group, club, organization, or association of 5 or more persons” that has as one of its primary purposes the commission of felony drug offenses, crimes of violence, human trafficking, and other offenses.
Gupta stated further that the act would “disproportionately harm younger immigrants — particularly unaccompanied minors, some of whom flee their home countries to escape gang violence, forced drug trafficking, and sexual violence, and who are at high risk of being coerced to participate in criminal activity.”
“It will also indiscriminately bar these immigrants from asylum . . . or other forms of humanitarian relief,” the letter states.
Several immigration scholars reached Wednesday by Diverse agreed that it’s wrongheaded for Congress to focus on deporting immigrants who are suspected criminal gang members and not act with the same urgency to eliminate the legal limbo for Dreamers.
Some also charged that there will be elements of the proposed legislation that — if passed — would lead to racial profiling.
Dr. Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University, said the proposed law is problematic because gangs are “loosely defined.”
“And how municipalities are defining gangs, it’s targeted, racially profiled, especially for Latinos,” Greer said. “It seems like sometimes there could be more than three Latinos in one place, they consider that a gang. If you’re from a certain neighborhood, they consider that a gang.”
Dr. Carina A. Bandhauer, professor of sociology at Western Connecticut State University, voiced similar concerns and called H.R. 3697 “a very bad piece of legislation.”
Bandhauer said the proposed law is bad not only because it categorizes some immigrants as bad and others as good and thus polarizes immigrants, but also because it “will make communities in the US more hostile and specifically vulnerable to racial profiling.”
“By addressing H.R. 3697, the focus is taken off of the travesty that the elimination of the DACA program will result in 800,000 young people being severed from their life-cords in the U.S.,” Bandhauer said in reference to DACA students. “By elevating H.R. 3697 with one hand and eliminating DACA with the other Congress will devastate not only the immigrants themselves, but the overall social and economic health of our nation as well.”
Not everyone, however, is critical of Congress for pursuing legislation to make it easier to remove immigrants suspected of gang activity from the country.
Among the proponents of the proposed law is the Andrew R. Arthur, resident fellow in law and policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, which bills itself as being “low immigration, pro-immigrant.”
Arthur says the criticism being levied against Congress is “unfair” for a number of reasons.
“We’ve seen a number of cases of some fairly serious and heinous crimes that have involved alien gang members as of late, and unfortunately the current immigration laws don’t in certain instances adequately protect the public from the danger posed by these alien gang members,” Arthur said.
“And for that reason it’s appropriate for Congress to attempt to ameliorate that problem by beefing up the immigration law in order to address the dangers that these gangs pose,” Arthur said.
Asked to elaborate and respond to the criticism that H.R. 3697 is unfair because it allows for removal based on suspicion of gang activity, Arthur said the problem is that individuals who are members of gangs and believed to have participated in gang activity are not subject to being identified and removed “until after some unfortunate event occurs.”
He also said the suspicion standard is already a common standard in the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act and applicable in cases of money laundering or drug trafficking.
Arthur also noted that H.R. 3697 is appropriate for Congress to pursue because the bill has already come out of committee whereas the Dream Act has not yet been identified for markup.
“This has already been prepared for the floor,” Arthur said in reference to a vote on the House Floor. The Dream Act, he said, “hasn’t gone through the regular order.”
Statistics on criminal gang arrests vary depending on the source and how they are tracked.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials recently testified before Congress that from fiscal 2016 to fiscal 2017, ICE had “made more than 8,000 criminal arrests of gang leaders, members, and associates that resulted in more than 2,600 convictions so far. Additionally, during this same time period, ICE made 1,117 administrative immigration arrests of gang members.”
Sources say H.R. 3697 could be put forth for a vote as early as Thursday. Be that as it may, there’s still some other political posturing that may be at play, particularly given that H.R. 3697 currently has about a one percent chance of passing, according to govtrack.us.
Dr. Scott Waller, chair of the political science department at Biola University, a private Christian institution in Southern California, observed that: “Many, if not all things, in Washington are responded to on the basis of how legislators think their constituencies will perceive them.”
Waller also noted how President Trump won the presidency partially based on his “willingness to speak in very bold terms when it came to our national challenges with immigration.”
“He also spoke of the need to rid our cities of violent members of gangs that, he believed, were populated in many instances by those who were illegally in the country,” Waller said in reference to Trump. “So, the image of the new administration working to execute a plan to remove from our population an element purportedly causing such violence and strife is, of course, politically popular, even with many traditional Democratic constituencies.”
Waller said there could be other motives at play.
“Perhaps in order to garner a deal on DACA legislation later, the GOP-controlled Congress has calculated that a first pass at this other legislation is first necessary to mollify the more conservative wing of the party’s legislative caucus,” Waller said. “Of course, some are reading this Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act as a Trojan horse for a broader immigration agenda. Time and the actual wording of the legislation will tell the true story.”
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.