The US’s Immigration Crackdown Began Decades Ago Under Clinton

The scenes at the southern border — of terrified families and isolated children huddled in dreary makeshift jails — suggest that the federal immigration regime is reaching an unprecedented level of cruelty under Trump. But the border crackdown that is being continued by the Trump administration in the present moment actually began long ago on Capitol Hill in 1996, with the passage of sweeping laws that swelled federal powers to incarcerate and deport migrants through the criminal courts.

The legal gauntlet was crafted under the Clinton administration in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). But a generation later, these 1996 immigration laws are being challenged by activists fighting to dismantle the policies that Trump has ruthlessly exploited to brutalize immigrant communities.

The Trump administration’s anti-immigrant dragnet, driven by intensifying border enforcement and a rise in arrests nationwide by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), aims to criminalize the mere act of setting foot in the U.S. without papers. Yet the escalation in criminal prosecutions — often for nonviolent, pedestrian criminal offenses, like fraud or drug possession — has highlighted an often-overlooked intersection of the criminal and immigration legal regimes: Many laws allow for the expulsion of those deemed “undesirable” immigrants who have been convicted of crimes, even if they are legal residents. But today, the collateral consequences of mass criminalization are traumatizing immigrant communities across the country.

“Now, more than ever, the criminal legal system is just a pipeline to deportation, and the ‘96 laws are really the main apparatus that set the stage for that to happen,” said Sameera Hafiz, a policy director at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which is campaigning alongside hundreds of other organizations for a repeal of the 1996 laws. Under Trump, she added, “There’s a lot of emboldening of racism and racists,” but at the same time, his aggressive anti-immigrant policies provide “a real opportunity to shed light on how the system actually works.” While the administration “works to target and scapegoat immigrants with convictions,” ostensibly siphoning out so-called “bad” immigrants, the damage radiates through households and neighborhoods, and “fear and insecurity spreads widely among communities of color.”

By Michelle Chen for TRUTHOUT.ORG
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