Proposed SAFE Act Contains Draconian, Costly Immigration Measures

Washington, D.C. – As the House Judiciary Committee proceeds today with markup of the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement (SAFE) Act, H.R. 2278, Human Rights First urges committee members to oppose this harmful piece of legislation that undermines American values and U.S. commitments to due process and human rights. The bill seeks to expand costly and inhumane immigration detention practices, delay or permanently prevent legitimate refugees from becoming U.S. citizens, as well as to allow the government to detain immigrants indefinitely without meaningful legal safeguards.

Unlike the comprehensive immigration bill being considered by the Senate, the SAFE Act focuses only on draconian enforcement measures that would criminalize millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States. It would undermine public trust in law enforcement by delegating authority to local and state enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration laws.

Provisions in the SAFE Act would add to the already huge network of 250 jails and jail-like facilities that house the more than 400,000 immigrants detained each year as they go through their immigration proceedings or await removal. Human Rights First has long documented  the negative effects on refugees and other immigrants who are unable to receive protection and are detained in remote, punitive jails far away from their families or immigration lawyers.

The SAFE Act would also subject immigrants to indefinite detention, including stateless individuals who often languish in immigration detention because they are unable to obtain a travel document and return to their home countries. Human Rights First notes that immigration detention, a civil form of detention intended to ensure an immigrant’s compliance with immigration proceedings, already costs U.S. taxpayers approximately $2 billion each year, whereas alternatives to detention cost as little as 30 cents to $14 per day.

“Rather than moving towards more humane, cost-effective and bi-partisan supported alternatives to detention and flexible detention levels, the SAFE Act ignores these best practices in the criminal justice and immigration enforcement system by counter intuitively calling for additional immigration detention facilities,” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer.

The SAFE Act also undermines bipartisan efforts to protect those mislabeled as terrorists by the United States despite the fact that they are legitimately fleeing trauma and persecution. Under current immigration laws, bona fide asylum seekers who are mislabeled as terrorists because of overly broad definitions of terrorism in U.S. immigration law already struggle to apply for protection in the United States. Their applications for asylum or for legal permanent residence are often placed on hold for extended periods or wrongly denied.

A bipartisan coalition in Congress led by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) amended the law in 2007 to give the Secretary of Homeland Security broader authority to exempt persons with no actual connection to terrorism from these provisions.  However, the extreme over breadth of the law and the administration’s slow implementation of exemptions for deserving cases has left this problem unresolved nearly six years later.

The SAFE Act would extend this unresolved quagmire to applications for naturalization.  In addition, Human Rights First is concerned that the bill could be applied to bar from naturalization even those who were granted an exemption in connection with their earlier applications for asylum, refugee status, or permanent residence.  This includes refugees who fought alongside U.S. forces in Iraq or Vietnam, or those who were forced to pay a ransom to rebel groups in order to save a loved one’s life.

“We urge the House Judiciary Committee to reject this partisan bill and instead support smart immigration laws that uphold America’s commitments to freedom and human rights,” Acer said.

For more information, see Human Rights First’s reports: Denial and Delay, Jails and JumpsuitsHow to Repair the Asylum and Refugee Resettlement Systems, and How to Repair U.S. Immigration Detention Practices.


Published on June 18, 2013


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