Why It’s Time to #Fix96

Featured Partner: Southeast Asia Resource Action Center

This year marks the 20th anniversary of harsh immigration laws that ushered in a devastating era of mass deportation.

These laws – the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996 – vastly expanded the pool of non-citizens marked out for “removal,” led to the creation of a massive, militarized deportation apparatus under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, made detention and deportation mandatory for a wide range of past criminal offenses, and stripped immigrants of many basic rights, including the right to a fair day in court.

Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be asking partners and allies across a range of issues and communities to detail the impact of these laws on their memberships and constituencies and why they think it’s time to roll them back – to #Fix96.

Previously, we heard from Families for Freedom. This week, we’re featuring the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization that was founded in 1979 to facilitate the relocation of Southeast Asian refugees into American society.

How do the 1996 immigration laws impact the core issues your organization works on?

Searac LogoSEARAC’s communities are primarily those who came to the US as refugees after 1975 escaping the chaos and carnage after the US war in Vietnam, the bombings and Secret War in Laos, and the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. An entire generation of families were was with resettling in a new country without a sufficient social or economic safety net, while also trying to heal from the trauma of war. Kids grew up in schools and neighborhoods that were already failing other kids of color, and certainly didn’t know how to nurture refugee children. Most families coped with poverty. In this context, many families were touched by criminalization and violence, as the younger generation fought for survival.

Fast forward to 1996: people who were growing up and moving on from the mistakes they made in the past found themselves deportable overnight. Around 80 percent of the 15,000 individuals who have had deportation orders to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam got them on the basis of old criminal convictions, and a majority of those orders were automatic and irreversible, without any oversight by an immigration judge. Every year we meet more people who came to this country as refugee children, and were often born in refugee camps, and who are now being deported to a country they have never visited for a mistake they made long ago. Under the 96 laws, it doesn’t matter what the circumstances of the original crime were, or who the person has become since being released from prison, or if their aging parents or young children depend on them.

We try to paint this fuller picture for immigration officials and members of Congress. We say, “These stories will break your heart and maybe change your mind, if you’re only willing to take the time to listen.” And we try to support impacted advocates to speak powerfully about their own stories while demanding that these laws be changed.

From your organization’s perspective, what needs to change to address those problems?

Certainly we need to restore the right of an immigration judge to weigh whether deportation is appropriate or even humane in each individual case. This is a matter of basic due process under the law, and everyone deserves it. Secondly, we need to value the rights of children and families who depend, economically and emotionally, on their fathers and mothers (and sisters and brothers) who are being deported. Deportation does not make families or communities safer – on the contrary, it makes families much more vulnerable and destabilizes entire communities. So the law needs to take the needs of families much more into account when considering discretion to stop a deportation.

Please complete this sentence: It’s time to #fix96 because…

It’s time to #fix96 because too many of our families have been subject to the automatic injustice of mandatory deportation. We need criminal justice and immigration laws that focus on healing, not perpetual punishment; rehabilitation, not retribution; family unity, not permanent separation.