Atlantic Cities

How the Republican Plan for Immigration Reform Repeats the Mistakes of the Drug War

How the Republican Plan for Immigration Reform Repeats the Mistakes of the Drug War
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The first piece of immigration legislation to make it out of Congressional committee last year was the SAFE Act, passed by the House Judiciary Committee in June 2013. A few bills followed in July, before the entire reform process grounded to a halt. But with things starting back up again, it's worth revisiting the SAFE Act, and the incredible powers it would bestow on state and local law enforcement. 

The SAFE Act, which passed the House Judiciary Committee on a party line vote, would make it a crime to be in the U.S. illegally (currently it's an "administrative violation"). That means undocumented immigrants would not just be deported, they'd serve a jail sentence before deportation. It's an expensive proposition: The Congressional Budget Office estimates the SAFE Act would cost more than $22 billion between 2014 and 2018. The act also encourages states and cities to pass their own restrictive immigration laws, and it tasks local cops with enforcing existing federal law. The act would also encourage police departments to divert resources from policing violent and property crimes in favor of busting up immigrant communities. 

Thomas Manger, chief of police for Montgomery County, Maryland, testified two months ago that the SAFE Act would discourage illegal immigrants who were the victims of violent crime from contacting police. Manger offered the example of an immigrant woman who was badly beaten by her ex-boyfriend, and initially refused to report him for fear of being deported herself. Under the SAFE Act, both the woman and her ex would be deported, possibly after jail time. 

Last week, another law enforcement leader came forward with criticism of the SAFE Act. Richard S. Biehl, chief of police for the Dayton (Ohio) Police Department, wrote an op-ed for The Hill arguing that the SAFE Act is incompatible with good policing. 

"Like other cities, the Dayton Police Department works hard to build trust with our community members so that they are not afraid to work with us if they are witnesses to or victims of crime," Biehl writes. He continues:

Our officers do not check the immigration status of witnesses and victims. Nor do we ask about legal status during minor traffic stops. These policies allow us to focus our limited resources on our primary mission — crime solving and community safety.

Numerous local law enforcement officials across the country agree that they do not have the time, resources or expertise to engage in immigration enforcement, ... Any law that would require us to do so would wrongly delegate to us an unreasonable task and cause us to compromise our core mission of ensuring public safety.

So why did Congressional Republicans propose the SAFE Act in the first place?

In part, it's because some legislators still think the best way to discourage certain behaviors is to jack the cost of engaging in that behavior through the roof. Deportation is already a pretty ugly practice—it breaks up families, putting kids in stateside foster care and their parents on the other side of a border. Yet some people look at our current immigration laws, and think, "let's up the stakes."

Legislators basically said the same thing about drugs in the 1980s. That decision led to overcrowded prisons, generational poverty, massive voter disenfranchisement, and misplaced law enforcement priorities. Decades later, conservatives—including Texas Governor Rick Perry—are breaking up with the drug war. That's why it's so odd to see Congressional Republicans push something that would duplicate its worst effects. 

Top image: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Mike Riggs is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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