Jewish World Review July 3, 2001 / 12 Tamuz 5761
This week the High Court permitted some legal immigrants facing deportation for once committing crimes to have their cases reviewed by judges, but unless Congress acts, thousands more still face ouster even though they have turned their lives around.
For decades prior to 1996, the law permitted individuals facing deportation to appeal to an immigration judge. Between 1989 and 1995 more than half of those who appealed -- about 10,000 people -- were allowed to stay, despite having once broken the law.
They were able to persuade a judge that they had paid for their offenses, maintained clean records, had jobs and families and were likely to stay out of trouble.
However, in the same anti-immigration frenzy that produced California's Proposition 187 and a federal welfare bill denying aid to legal aliens in 1996, Congress passed laws making deportation mandatory for legal immigrants who had committed any crime punishable by a year or more in prison.
And in her own excess of zeal, former Attorney General Janet Reno interpreted the law to apply retroactively to persons who had committed crimes or agreed to plea bargains prior to the law's enactment. As a result, a series of grotesquely unjust cases emerged, such as that of Rick Siridavong of Springfield, Va., a Laotian refugee who arrived in America in 1981 and who is a legal resident alien.
In 1995, he and some high school friends stole a car radio and were caught. He pleaded guilty, received a two-year suspended sentence and performed 50 hours of community service.
Three years later, he applied to become a U.S. citizen, thereby attracting the attention of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Instead of being sworn in, he was arrested and locked up for five months. He could be deported or indefinitely detained.
In another case, Jose Velasquez of Aldan, Pa., a U.S. resident since 1960 and the father of three children who are American citizens, faces deportation to Panama for having pleaded guilty to a minor drug charge in 1980.
At the time, he was fined and served five years' probation. But he was arrested by the INS and kept in detention for four months during which he lost his business.
Siridavong and Velasquez are members of the Texas-based Citizens & Immigrants for Equal Justice, which is headed by Laurie Kozuba. Her Canadian-born husband, Daniel, is a U.S. veteran who served three years in prison for possession of methamphetamines. He's been clean since 1990.
He actually won a waiver from deportation in 1993. But after the 1996 laws were passed, the waiver was retroactively revoked, opening him up to deportation proceedings.
In many cases, those facing deportation had pleaded guilty to offenses on the understanding -- based on the pre-1996 law -- they would be able to apply for waivers of deportation orders.
However, under INS procedures applied by the Justice Department under President Bush and former President Bill Clinton, they were arrested and slated for ouster in what amounted to ex post facto administration of injustice.
By a 5-4 decision on Monday, the Supreme Court said that Congress had not explicitly withdrawn the constitutional right of habeas corpus from immigrants and that there could be court hearings for those who had the 1996 law retroactively applied against them.
With a lack of compassion that's typical for them -- and expressing a deference to Congress that is atypical -- the court's conservatives opined that Congress had intended to, and could, strip the courts of jurisdiction over such cases.
In another line of cases, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice William Rehnquist often find that the Constitution denies Congress the power to overcome states' rights to effect social good. The court's majority, however, did not extend the right of appeal to all legal immigrants facing deportation. Legislation to do so passed the House last year, but was stymied in the Senate.
It's been reintroduced this year by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., with the backing of Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, one of the anti-immigration hard-liners responsible for passing the 1996 law, and by Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Bob Graham, D-Fla.
The bills would return the law to its pre-1996 state. Immigrants who commit crimes could still be deported, but at least they'd have the right to convince a judge they'd gone straight. In other words, they would be accorded simple American