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The Law That Broke US Immigration

When Americans turned on their TVs in the
early 1990s, one contentious issue was hard to miss: immigration. Is immigration good for America? The federal government won’t stop them at
the border. You spend $5.5 billion a year to support them. There’s a right way. And there’s a wrong way. At the time, there were around 5 million undocumented
immigrants in the US. And most Americans saw immigrants as a burden on the country, taking jobs, housing and healthcare, and thought immigration as a whole should be decreased. Our country is invaded by immigrants who
are like cancer cells. That same year, Republicans ran on a tough-on-immigration
platform and took control of Congress. Democrats were pushed to adopt tough positions
on immigration, too. We are a nation of immigrants. But we are also a nation of laws. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a major
piece of legislation: the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant
Responsibility Act, or, IIRIRA. It’s goal was to decrease the number of
undocumented immigrants. It did the opposite. Before the 1990s, undocumented immigration
into the US looked very different. For one, it was usually temporary. People used to go back and forth across the
border. They would go north for the harvest, and they
would earn some money, and they would go back to Mexico. And if they wanted to come live permanently
in the US, there were a few legal channels, but not many. If they married an American citizen, they
could get lawful status. Or if maybe their brother was a citizen already,
he could sponsor them. Or an employer could. And these could be done after they were already
living in the US undocumented. Before 1996, the threat of deportation was
relatively low. People were commonly deported for committing
a crime. And it was usually limited to major crimes
— like murder or trafficking. But IIRIRA, together with other 1996 laws,
drastically expanded deportable crimes to even minor infractions, like shoplifting. It was also retroactive. So say it’s 1976, and someone is caught
stealing some albums from the mall — they wouldn’t be deported. Over the next 20 years, they never commit
another crime. But after 1996, they could be deported because
of that old misdemeanor. And not just if they were currently undocumented: this applied to immigrants with lawful status,
too. And previously an immigration judge could
decide if the deportation should even take place. Now things were a little more automatic. Ignoring the fact that those deportations
would be extremely harmful to US citizen children or spouses. Deportations skyrocketed. And IIRIRA created the framework for future
laws that further expanded reasons people could be deported, especially
after 9/11. But IIRAIRA also made another huge, fundamental
change in the US immigration system. One of the aspects of the 1996 law that is
particularly strict and I think in many respects, inhumane, is the so-called
3 and 10 year bars. Those 3 and 10 year bars made these legal
pathways nearly impossible to obtain. They work like this: Anyone who’s been undocumented in the US
for 6 months and wants to gain legal status, first has
to leave the country and be barred from returning for 3 years. If they’ve been undocumented for more than
a year, they’re barred for 10 years. So if they want to get lawful status through
a job, they’d have to first leave the US, for 10 years. Or through their brother? Leave, for 10 years. Or through their spouse? Leave, for 10 years. It’s family separation by another name. The bars were intended to try to essentially
create punishments that were so severe to deter people essentially
from coming here, but as we’ve seen with many deterrent-based
policies the practical effect is very different. Instead, it incentivized people to stay in
the US undocumented. Before IIRIRA, Mexican immigrants who came
to the US unlawfully were about 50% likely to return to Mexico
within a year. But after 1996, more people started staying
in the US. There were around 5 million undocumented immigrants
living in the US before IIRIRA. Today, it’s at least double that. And we are somehow surprised by that outcome. This is of our own doing. Laws like IIRIRA shaped the way the US focuses
on immigration enforcement as a deterrent. But really it proved that stronger enforcement
doesn’t actually stop undocumented immigration. These laws, and the politics in the 90s,
didn’t really change the reasons why people come to the United States, Today, views on immigrants are very different
than they were in the 1990s: most Americans now see them as a strength,
not a burden. But the laws created here,
haven’t changed. Requirements and standards that were created
decades ago that aren’t responsive to our needs as a nation and certainly aren’t
responsive to the needs of immigrant populations. The idea that, if we only had more guns,
if we only built a higher wall, that would solve all the problems. I think we learned from 1996 that’s not the way it works.
It’s not that simple.
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