A sweeping immigration reform law designed to shore up U.S. borders and expedite deportations took effect at 35 minutes past midnight on Tuesday here after judges, lawyers and advocates battled into the night over its implementation.
Immigrants across the United States awoke baffled and scared as rumors of mass deportation swirled in their circles.
“Fear and confusion are sweeping through immigrant and refugee communities,” said Soya Jung of the Alliance for Immigrant and Refugee Justice in Washington state.
“This is the harshest piece of immigration legislation our nation has seen in more than 50 years. It’s an unjust law and we can’t take it lying down.”
Several hundred people, many of them Haitians, took to the streets Tuesday near an INS office in Miami to vent their frustrations.
Many of the immigrants had come to the United States in search of new lives.
“Now all of a sudden they’ve changed the rules. They’re telling them to go back home,” said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.
In Newark, N.J., speakers decried the new rules as scapegoating.
“Immigrants united will never be defeated,” was the chant - in both English and Spanish - of about 200 protesters outside the federal building.
Chill winds snapped flags and banners held by Colombians and Irish. Many posters read: “No human being is illegal.”
Immigration and Naturalization Service officials said the statute is being phased in as planned, and tried to reassure frightened illegal immigrants it would cause no mass deportations or workplace roundups, as many have dreaded.
“There is absolutely no truth to the rumor and falsehood that the INS has planned and defined massive deportation proceedings,” says INS spokesman Brian Jordan. “This is going to be a gradual process. It’s going to take time.”
The most sweeping overhaul of its kind in a decade, the law paves the way for physical barriers at the borders - including a triple fence in San Diego - more border patrol staff, better INS equipment and an accelerated deportation process that limits the legal challenges an immigrant can make.
For a few hours late Monday, it appeared the law would be delayed after a federal judge in Washington held that the government had failed to give adequate notice of the impending crackdown. But seven hours later, his order was reversed by an emergency panel of judges summoned by the Department of Justice. The on-again, off-again rulings further muddled an already confusing situation.
The new law has been the subject of contentious debate since Congress passed it handily last fall. So it was no surprise that both sides battled to the finish Monday over its implementation.
April 1 had come to be regarded as a dire deadline for illegals who feared mass roundups. Advocates from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups raced to Washington last week in an attempt to block it.
Under the new law, INS officers may refuse entry to anyone bearing invalid or fraudulent documents unless a credible fear of persecution or asylum claim is made. It also reduces the rights of federal courts to review decisions about deportation and exclusion.
Advocates for immigrants maintain the INS is violating the law and the intent of Congress by not ordering immigration officers to routinely inform people of their right to apply for asylum and consult with an attorney.
INS says immigrants will be told of that right at a point in the process called “secondary inspection.” If the initial INS agent isn’t sure how to proceed, the immigrant is sent to another agent. If the second agent denies admission, the individual must be told of the right to apply for asylum.
But advocates say they should be informed much earlier in the process.
Robert Rubin of the Lawyers’ Committee said that under the law, immigrants with valid reasons for fleeing their homelands are being summarily denied admission because they can’t articulate them.
Previously, such decisions could be appealed to an immigration judge.
“We’re saying, ‘INS, before you send them back to persecution and death, can you at least inform them of their rights?”’ said Rubin.
“If they are unable to articulate immediately their fear of persecution, they will be sent back. The INS wants to keep individuals in the dark. That’s wrong. It goes against the fundamental rights of our society.”
Other provisions of the immigration law, signed in September, will:
Make it easier to deport illegal aliens unless they can prove their removal would cause “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” to a close relative who is a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident.
Bar aliens seeking to re-enter the country after living here without authorization. Undocumented immigrants who spend 180 days here unlawfully after April 1 will face three years of banishment, or 10 years if they stay a year or more.
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