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Kanstroom: US Deportation Policy Needs Major Reform

Kanstroom, with Prof. Binton Lykes (LSOE), left, and Harvard University sociologist Mary Waters, at a campus event last month to make the launch of Aftermath. (Photo by Caitlin Cunningham)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Oct. 4, 2012

The United States’ increased emphasis on deporting immigrants during the past 15-20 years has torn apart families, placed untold numbers of persons at economic or health-related risk, and costs billions of dollars a year — while doing little to resolve the country’s myriad immigration issues, according to Professor of Law Daniel Kanstroom, author of the recently published Aftermath: Deportation and the New American Diaspora.

In the book, Kanstroom assesses milestones in the history of immigration-related US policy and legislation, notably the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which expanded the number of crimes that made people subject to deportation, limited judicial discretion and required mandatory detention of those subject to removal on the basis of a criminal conviction, as well as some non-criminal deportees.

Kanstroom examines nearly two decades of statistics and trends alongside stories and anecdotes that recount the deleterious impact of deportation on individuals, families and communities. Analyzing a host of legal and philosophical questions — such as the relationship between the “rule of law” and the border, and whether some deportees might be entitled to a right of return — Kanstroom concludes that the US deportation system is in serious need of reform.

“Deportation has always been recognized as a harsh sanction — it’s banishment, more or less,” says Kanstroom, who marked the publication of Aftermath last month with an event at Boston College Law School. “No countries do it to citizens anymore — and many limit removal of legally present non-citizens to only the most serious crimes after considering a person’s family ties.

“It’s a very dramatic thing to send someone away from a place where he or she may have lived for years — or perhaps all his or her life.”

As the number of foreign-born persons living in the US has reached a record level, so have incidences of deportation, notes Kanstroom. From 1991-2000, there were a total of more than 14.5 million “deportation events” in the US — 946,506 forced removals and more than 13.5 million returns, some of which may be considered “voluntary.” While overall deportation events decreased during 2001-10 to 12.1 million, the number of forced removals rose to 2.7 million.

The statistics include persons deported for being undocumented as well as those in the country legally who were convicted of a crime. Their stories are often compelling, complex and heart-wrenching, Kanstroom says.

Aftermath relates some of these cases: A Ghanan native in poor health, who had been a legal permanent resident for 33 years, died in custody while fighting deportation for a series of minor offenses committed years ago. A 15-year-old boy fled his native El Salvador to avoid being recruited by a violent gang, and attempted to rejoin his parents, who were living legally in the US — but after being detained upon trying to enter the US and then failing to gain asylum, he was deported back to El Salvador, and subsequently murdered by a member of the gang.

“Studies of criminal-related deportations show that the vast majority of these deportees’ crimes were non-violent,” says Kanstroom, who directs the BC International Human Rights Program, and is associate director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice, which houses the Post-Deportation Human Rights Project.

“Of course, non-violent crime is still crime. But if we’re trying to assess crime-fighting priorities and methods, doesn’t the seriousness of the targeted offenses matter?”

Moreover, he adds, research indicates that contrary to some popular beliefs, it is US-born citizens who are more likely to commit crimes rather than immigrants, illegal or legal.

Deportees may not possess significant ties to the country where they are sent, having been gone for so long or, if they are children of immigrants, because they were born in the US, Kanstroom says. Some, such as the El Salvadoran youth, have reason to fear for their safety in their country of destination.

The economics of deportation can cut more than one way, he adds, because a deportee’s income may not only support family members in the US but relatives back home as well. And the cost to the US of managing deportation and related immigration enforcement activities, an estimated $17 billion a year, does nothing to address the root causes and effects of illegal immigration.

“Virtually everyone agrees about the need for comprehensive immigration reform, with things like a structured visa system and an earned legalization program,” says Kanstroom. “I’m not suggesting there is no place for deportation, but there needs to be a balance: Weighing the seriousness of the crime committed, for example, against the needs of the family.

“Amidst all the ongoing debate over immigration in the US, we have paid scant attention to what happens to deportees once they actually leave the US. It is not an encouraging picture.”

Kanstroom says he is “cautiously optimistic” about the prospects for reform: Both presidential candidates have voiced support for reform of some kind, including a scaling down of deportation, and while immigration remains a controversial subject, he feels that the human cost of draconian enforcement policies will ultimately sway the public toward a more sympathetic view of immigrants.

“I think the established ideas of decency and proportionality will return and inform US policy on immigration,” he says, “and we’ll come to look upon this era as a time when we strayed from our better traditions.”

For information on the Post-Deportation Human Rights Project, see /centers/humanrights/projects/deportation.html.