The debate over immigration–legal and illegal–has become more divisive and seemingly more intractable in the face of the current Administration’s hard-line policies. In a democracy, ideally, people with different views about immigration would talk to each other and reach some type of compromise solution. That is difficult with any issue, but it is particularly problematic when it comes to immigration. There are many reasons for this, but for me, one reason stands out: Immigration is an all-or-nothing proposition.
What I mean is, under the immigration law, either a person gets to stay in the U.S. or they get deported. There is no middle ground. Contrast this with the criminal law. If a person robs a bank, for example, there are a wide range of responses available under our system of justice. The person could be sentenced to jail (for a short time or a long time), or fined (a lot or a little), or given probation. Perhaps the bank robber is a good candidate for rehabilitation and can be placed into a program to obtain appropriate services. In short, a criminal judge has many options, and can–theoretically–tailor a solution to fit the particular circumstances of the case. Immigration Judges have far fewer options.
When a person is placed into Immigration Court, it is for one reason: The U.S. government believes that the person should be deported from the United States. The charging document, called a Notice to Appear (“NTA”), lists the reason(s) why the “respondent” (the non-citizen) can be deported. If you look at the allegations in a typical NTA, you will see: (1) You are not a citizen or national of the United States; (2) You are a citizen and national of country X; (3) You entered the United States on a particular date with a particular visa (or without a visa); (4) You overstayed your visa and no longer have permission to remain in the U.S., or you committed some act (such as a crime) that makes you ineligible to remain in the United States. Sometimes, respondents deny the allegations. Maybe the government got it wrong. Maybe the person is not deportable. Usually, though, the allegations in the NTA are correct, and the respondent concedes removablity, and proffers some type of defense to being removed. Common defenses include asylum, Withholding of Removal, relief under the Torture Convention, Cancellation of Removal, and adjustment of status. There are also other, less common, options. At the end of the day, the respondent will either be granted relief based on one of these defenses, or he will be ordered to leave the United States.
Under this legal regime, there is basically no opportunity for compromise. The respondent wins everything or loses everything. One exception (sort of) is the asylum applicant who receives the “lesser relief” of Withholding of Removal or protection under the United Nations Convention Against Torture (“CAT”). An applicant will receive “lesser relief” where she is ineligible for asylum. Committing a crime could render a person ineligible. So could missing the asylum-filing deadline. Asylum is the better form of relief, since asylees can bring immediate family members to the U.S., can travel, and can eventually get their green cards and become U.S. citizens. People who receive Withholding or CAT can stay in the country with a work permit, but they cannot bring their family members here, travel or obtain their green cards or citizenship. This type of “compromise” (if it can be called that) leaves the respondent in a strange limbo: Here, but not here. Unable to feel secure in their status or stable and safe in the U.S. It also seems unfair, at least to me, to “punish” asylum seekers with lesser relief when their only mistake was to file late for asylum. Why should such people be treated the same way as criminals under the asylum law? So for me, if “lesser relief” in an asylum case is a compromise, it is a poorly thought out compromise, which has little basis in equity or justice.
I wonder if there could be another model. Is there a moral middle ground that allows qualified respondents to stay and feel secure here, but that does not completely ignore past immigration misdeeds? In other words, is there a way to satisfy Americans who don’t want the government to grant amnesty to law-breakers, but at the same time, to provide a viable path for respondents seeking relief in Immigration Court?
One could argue–convincingly in my opinion–that the existing immigration system does not give immigrants a pass, even if they do receive relief. For one thing, it’s not cheap to obtain a green card or citizenship ($1,225 and $725, respectively, if you only consider direct fees to the government). Also, most immigration applications (with USCIS or with the Immigration Court) take a long time. If you do receive relief and then want your family members to join you here, that process will usually take additional years. So even in the best case, immigration to the U.S. is not easy and not cheap.
Although respondents pay a price (in money and time), the current immigration system does not provide the type of flexibility available to judges in criminal or civil cases. So what can be done?
One possibility is to impose fines on respondents who violate the immigration law. If relief is granted, the Immigration Judge can determine whether a law was broken, and if so, whether a fine is appropriate, and how much. Relief would then be conditioned on completing payment of the fine. Of course, a major criticism of fines (in civil and criminal cases) is that they are a tax on the poor, and that they prevent people from achieving financial stability. In the asylum context, fines would likely be inappropriate, since it is perfectly lawful for anyone–even people who do not have permission to enter the country–to seek asylum. But in other contexts, fines might make sense.
Another possibility is to impose a waiting or probationary period on people who are granted relief. This already happens in certain cases (and indeed, the green card itself might be viewed as a type of probation, since it can be lost for not following the rules). For example, there are only a limited number of green cards available through Cancellation of Removal, and so if such relief is granted, the applicant usually has to wait (for a year or two) before a green card is available. This is akin to “waiting your turn,” which seems so important to people concerned about immigrants “jumping the line.”
Finally, in some cases, it may be appropriate to impose certain conditions on people who receive relief in court. For example, if an applicant has a prior conviction for DUI, perhaps the Judge could require the applicant to attend AA meetings or complete community service. For people with other criminal issues, maybe anger management classes would be appropriate. In some cases, maybe English classes or job training would be important. Final relief could be contingent on fulfilling your court-imposed obligations.
All these ideas are imperfect and preliminary. Perhaps it’s a fool’s errand to try to satisfy those who oppose “amnesty” for non-citizens. Maybe the lesson of the Trump Administration is that policy is made by imposing our ideas on others and eschewing compromise. Maybe. But for me, I still have hope that we can reach a point where civil discourse and reasonable compromise are possible. And certainly, as the political landscape continues to change (hopefully, at some point, for the better), we should be thinking about ways to re-work our immigration system so that more Americans have a stake in that system and feel that it serves their needs. Giving Immigration Judges more flexibility may be one path towards that goal.