Bill Clinton's shameful legacy on immigration: "Terrible" laws he signed "rip apart" families and authorize unjust detention, Human Rights Watch says

Rights group says 1996 laws created a system of mass detention and abuse for refugees and migrants

Published April 27, 2016 9:56AM (EDT)

Bill Clinton (AP/Jim Cole)
Bill Clinton (AP/Jim Cole)

Clinton-era immigration laws "have subjected hundreds of thousands of people to arbitrary detention, fast-track deportations and family separation," Human Rights Watch says in a new report.

The rights group says two 1996 immigration laws signed by President Bill Clinton have created a system in which refugees and migrants face detention and fast-track deportation without adequate consideration from U.S. authorities.

Human Rights Watch is calling on the U.S. Congress to repeal provisions in these two laws.

President Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, or AEDPA, in 1996. Human Rights Watch says the legislation "greatly expanded the grounds for detaining and deporting immigrants, including long-term legal residents," authorizing for the first time fast-track deportation procedures, which are now frequently used in the U.S.

The law was passed in response to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, in which right-wing extremist Timothy McVeigh launched a terrorist attack on the Alfred P. Murrah federal government building, killing 168 people and injuring another 680.

AEDPA was ostensibly passed to stop future attacks like this, but it primarily ended up paving the way for rampant rights abuses for refugees and migrants, according to Human Rights Watch.

The rights group says the legislation additionally greatly limited the power of federal courts to consider petitions filed by prisoners who say they were wrongly convicted, including people on death row.

The other immigrant law signed by President Clinton in 1996 was the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, or IIRIRA. Human Rights Watch says the legislation "eliminated key defenses against deportation and subjected many more immigrants, including legal permanent residents, to detention and deportation."

IIRIRA allowed the government to detain and deport immigrants, including even legal permanent U.S. residents, for a range of relatively minor, nonviolent criminal convictions.

The law also made it much more difficult for refugees to apply for asylum, the rights group says.

In the past 20 years, Human Rights Watch notes it "has documented how these laws rip apart the families of even long-term legal residents via the broad swath of criminal convictions considered triggers for automatic deportation or detention."

The report cites cases of longtime U.S. residents being deported for drug convictions, even after serving their time.

These two Clinton-era laws have also "helped perpetuate a system of unnecessarily widespread immigration detention," Human Rights Watch reports.

The report cites a case in which a gay Honduran man fleeing persecution was detained by the U.S. government for almost a year. The asylum-seeker said he "felt harassed" and even considered suicide.

The rights group says the fast-track border deportation procedures authorized by this legislation "deny many asylum seekers a meaningful opportunity to make their claims, as required by U.S. and international law."

Today, the U.S. is still using these laws to authorize fast-track deportations of Central American refugees.

The Obama administration has carried out more deportation removals of immigrants than any other presidency in U.S. history, leading migrants' rights activists to dub the president the "Deporter in Chief."

More than 2.5 million people have been deported under Obama — approximately one-fourth more than under former President George W. Bush.

Some of those being deported by the U.S. have been refugees fleeing violence in Central America. An investigation found that, from January 2014 to October 2015, up to 83 refugees and migrants the U.S. deported back to Central America were killed.

In its latest report, Human Rights Watch cites a case in which an El Salvadoran woman who feared that local police in collaboration with a gang were going to kill her and her family was subjected to a fast-track deportation.

Rights groups have said they are “appalled” and “outraged” at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's raids, detentions and deportations of families who fled violence in Central America.

U.S. immigration courts have issued more than 10,000 deportation orders for unaccompanied Central American minors who have entered the country since 2014.

Human rights experts say the U.S. government's deportations of child refugees is likely illegal.

“Twenty years of unjust detention, deportation and family separation is 20 years too much,” explained Alison Parker, co-director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch, in the report. “Let this be the last anniversary for these terrible laws.”

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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Bill Clinton Human Rights Watch Immigrant Detention Facilities Immigrant Rights