How Many Legal Immigrants Are We Deporting?

My partner, Graham, became an American citizen last month — six years after the government tried to deport him. He’s originally from Scotland, came here legally and obtained a green card in 1999, but was ordered out of the country because of a misdemeanor conviction for drug possession.

Graham spent five months in immigration detention before a judge ruled that he could remain in the U.S., a harrowing experience that still haunts him today. Because detainees without documents are usually deported quickly, many of the people he was locked up with had some legal status — though few rights as they fought to stay with their families.

One man he befriended was an electrician from Philadelphia who was eventually deported to Northern Ireland because of a bar fight, which happened 11 years before immigration agents showed up at his home.

He was brought to America as a baby, had a green card and three young sons (all U.S. citizens). But because he pleaded guilty to that assault charge long ago — with no notion of the consequences — he was exiled far away from his loved ones.

Yet stories such as these don’t get much media attention, in part because the government doesn’t release statistics about how many people facing deportation have green cards. In fact, when media outlets report that the Obama administration has deported more than 2.5 million “illegal” or “undocumented” immigrants, that’s actually incorrect, because those statistics include legal residents and people with valid visas — not just immigrants who crossed the border without permission.

That misperception has fed the anti-immigrant furor that was also rampant in 1996, when Congress passed two bills that dramatically expanded the list of crimes (including shoplifting) that could lead to deportation.

In the lead-up to the presidential election, politicians wanted to show that they were tough on terrorism and crime, blaming immigrants for those threats. But even many lawyers were unaware of the new rules — until the Department of Homeland Security began enforcing them after Sept. 11. Because the laws were applied retroactively, immigrants faced deportation for crimes they’d committed decades earlier, and judges lost much of their ability to decide cases based on individual factors.

By Susan Stellin for Los Angeles Times
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