February 13, 2013 STATEMENT–LIRS Statement for Hearing: “Comprehensive Immigration Reform”

Press Contact: Jon Pattee, LIRS Assistant Director for Media Relations
202-591-5778, jpattee@lirs.org

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), the national agency established by Lutheran churches in the United States to serve uprooted people, is pleased by Congressional and Administrative efforts to draft and enact comprehensive immigration reform. People of faith have long called for an immigration system that prioritizes family unity and is grounded in humanitarian principles.

As this committee and others begin work on immigration reform legislation, LIRS offers our support for legislation adhering to the following five principles for reform:

  • Providing an earned pathway to lawful permanent residency and eventual citizenship for undocumented immigrants and their families.
  • Ensuring the humane and just enforcement of U.S. immigration laws, specifically by reducing the use of immigration detention and expanding the use of community support programs for immigrants who do not need to be detained.
  • Protecting families from separation and ensuring an adequate supply of visas for families seeking to reunite.
  • Providing adequate resources and protections to ensure the successful integration of refugees, asylees, survivors of torture and trafficking, unaccompanied children, and other vulnerable migrants.
  • Ensuring the protection of U.S. citizen and migrant workers.

LIRS supports compassionate immigration reform, including an emphasis on a roadmap to citizenship for undocumented migrants, the importance of family unity, and acknowledgement that oversight and safeguards are necessary components. Bishop Julian Gordy of the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Southeastern Synod stated, “For too long, our families and communities have felt the harmful consequences of federal inaction on immigration reform.”

Create a Roadmap to Citizenship for Aspiring Americans

Any comprehensive immigration reform legislation must create an immigration process allowing aspiring Americans the opportunity to become United States citizens. LIRS supports an earned pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and their families that is accessible and reasonable.

Currently, those without legal status must live with the constant possibility of detention, removal, and family separation; uncertainties that have negative impacts on the well-being of individual migrants as well as broader society. [1] A life spent living in the shadows violates the inherent dignity of each human being. A roadmap to citizenship will allow people who have been living in and contributing to our nation for many years to become full members of their communities. An earned pathway to citizenship has economic benefits as well: if all legal permanent residents currently eligible to naturalize did so it would increase the United States’ Gross Domestic Product between $37 billion and $52 billion.[2]

Reform Immigration Enforcement

LIRS will strive to advance immigration reform that secures migrants’ rights and treats everyone with dignity and fairness.

As Congress has deliberated on how to reform America’s immigration laws for decades, enforcement of current laws has exponentially expanded. When adjusted for inflation, the government spends 15 times as much on immigration enforcement today ($17.9 billion) as it did in 1986 ($1.2 billion).[3]

Since the last serious debate on immigration reform in 2007, the budget for the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) enforcement and removal operations has grown from $1.984 billion to $2.75 billion.[4],[5] In fiscal year (FY) 2011, ICE detained an all-time high number of persons- 429,000.[6] In just the first six months of 2011, ICE removed 46,486 people with U.S. citizen children.[7]  In FY 2012, 409,849 individuals were removed by ICE’s Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations[8].

The numbers bear witness to the facts that communities and families experience every day: enforcement of our immigration laws is happening at an unprecedented and incredible pace.  Through LIRS’s programmatic work, we have witnessed firsthand the detrimental effects immigration enforcement measures, such as immigration detention, have on individuals, families, and communities.

Isatu Jollah, grew up in Sierra Leone during the country’s civil war.[9] When she was twelve years old, Isatu was raped by rebel soldiers and separated from her mother. Isatu later suffered female genital mutilation (FGM) and was severely punished when she refused to perform the practice on other young women. Isatu fled to the United States where upon expressing her intention to apply for asylum at the airport she was detained in York County Prison (PA). While in detention, Isatu was denied medical care for complications relating to FGM. When post-traumatic stress disorder caused her attacks of anxiety she was isolated in solitary confinement.

Despite being an expensive and inhumane way to ensure appearance at immigration court proceedings, the growth of immigration detention has been steep and continual. The United States currently spends approximately 24% more money on immigration enforcement activities than on all other federal law enforcement programs combined.[10]

To detain a woman like Isatu for one day costs U.S. taxpayers an average of $164.[11] LIRS supports increased use of alternatives to detention, which range in cost from a few cents a day to an average of $22 a day and allow migrants to reunite with family members and contribute to their communities while undergoing immigration proceedings.[12] Isatu was eventually released from detention with a tracking device as part of an alternatives to detention program. Appearance rates in immigration proceedings for those released on alternatives to detention average over 90%, making these options a practical, humane, and economical alternative to detention.[13]

Any reform of our immigration system must include protections against arbitrary detention and the separation of families and safeguards to ensure enforcement is carried out in a fair, humane, and economically sound manner.

Prevent Family Separation

LIRS strongly believes that a reformed immigration system must improve family unity. Family is the cornerstone of our faith and the grounding structure of our society. Comprehensive immigration reform must uphold the importance of families to our congregations and communities by including meaningful reforms to the family-based immigration system.

People of faith all over America wholeheartedly agree on the need for an improvement of the immigration process for families. “LIRS and Lutherans all across this country will be lifting up our voices and engaging lawmakers from both parties to answer the president’s call for fair and compassionate immigration reform that is both business and family friendly,” said LIRS President and CEO Linda Hartke.

The avenues for families to legally immigrate must be accessible and sufficient to avoid family separation.  The current family visa system forces too many families to endure years of separation from their loved ones. For some families who filed a visa petition before June 1, 1989, backlogs have forced them to wait over 23 years to begin the application process. [14] They will finally be able to do so in February 2013. Any reform of our immigration system must reduce these backlogs and improve mechanisms for family members to reunite with relatives in the United States.

Protect and Integrate Refugees and Other Vulnerable Migrants

As one of the nine national voluntary agencies who resettle refugees, LIRS values the United States’ long tradition of welcoming refugees as well as the opportunity for improvements in the processing and protection of vulnerable migrants. Comprehensive immigration reform legislation must include provisions to update all channels of migration to the United States and improve protection afforded to vulnerable migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Too many vulnerable migrants are denied protection for bureaucratic reasons. Currently, asylum seekers must file their request for asylum within one year of arrival to the United States. There are many reasons asylum seekers are unable to file within the deadline, including lack of access to legal services, the effects of trauma and torture, and language barriers.[15] The impact of this unnecessary and outdated deadline is striking.  One in five asylum claims are denied because the case was filed after the deadline, making the deadline a significant barrier to protection in the United States.[16]

Those migrants who lack legal status in the United States may be particularly vulnerable to being targets of crime or violence. The U visa was created in 2000 to protect migrant survivors of violence who assist law enforcement in their investigative efforts.[17] The 10,000 annual limit on U visas has been reached prior to the end of the fiscal year for the last three years.[18] An expansion of the U visa program in comprehensive immigration reform would ensure migrant survivors of violence who work to assist law enforcement receive the protection they need.

LIRS is one of two organizations providing services to unaccompanied migrant children in the United States, placing them in foster care and assisting with family reunification. In 2012, the number of children crossing the border as unaccompanied minors spiked dramatically: 13,625 children were apprehended in fiscal year 2012 compared to 6,855 children in 2011, a significant increase that strained the capacity of service providers.[19] As Congress considers immigration reform legislation, lawmakers must take into account the growing arrivals of unaccompanied children and ensure they are treated with compassion, particularly that they receive the screenings and services to which they are entitled by law.

Protect Workers

LIRS advocates for provisions in comprehensive immigration reform that will ensure protections for U.S. citizen and migrant workers. As Congress builds an immigration system that ensures a supply of labor to meet national demands, future immigration laws must recognize the contributions migrants make to our communities and improve protections to ensure the safety, dignity and fair treatment of every worker.

Conclusion

LIRS is nationally recognized for its leadership advocating on behalf of refugees, asylum seekers, unaccompanied children, immigrants in detention, families fractured by migration and other vulnerable populations, and for providing services to migrants through over 60 grassroots legal and social service partners across the United States.

If you have any question about this statement, please contact Brittney Nystrom, Director for Advocacy, at (202) 626-7943 or via email at bnystrom@lirs.org.

Additional LIRS Resources

  • LIRS’s principles for immigration reform may be read here: www.bit.ly/WfmniH
  • The January 29, 2013 press release on President Obama’s speech outlining a vision for immigration reform may be read here: www.bit.ly/VxQHYW
  • The January 28, 2013 press release on the release of the bipartisan principles for immigration reform in the Senate may be read here: www.bit.ly/WhPPX2
  • LIRS’s FAQ’s on the Family Immigration System may be read here: www.bit.ly/11Jqt2Z
  • LIRS’s backgrounder on unaccompanied children may be read here: www.bit.ly/YSeyzU
  • The December 15, 2011 press release expressing concerns with increased FY 2012 immigration detention spending may be read here: www.bit.ly/XoeHtA
  • The October 2011 report, Unlocking Liberty: A Way Forward for U.S. Immigration Detention Policy, may be read here: www.bit.ly/VwrNFE

 


[1] Legal Violence in the Lives of Immigrants, Center for American Progress http://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/MenjivarLegalViolenceReport_execsumm.pdf (December 2012).

[2] The Dividends of Citizenship, Immigration Policy Center, http://immigrationpolicy.org/just-facts/dividends-citizenship-why-legalization-must-lead-citizenship (February 2013).

[3] Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinery, Migration Policy Institute, http://www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/enforcementpillars.pdf (January 2013).

[4] Unlocking Liberty: A Way Forward for U.S. Immigration Detention Policy, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service www.lirs.org/dignity (October 2011).

[5] Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012, PL 122-74 http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-112publ74/html/PLAW-112publ74.htm (Dec. 23, 2011).

[6] Immigration Enforcement Actions: 2011, Office of Immigration Statistics, Policy Directorate, http://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/immigration-statistics/enforcement_ar_2011.pdf (Sept. 2012)

[7] Deportation of Parents of U.S.-Born Citizens, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, http://www.lirs.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/ICE-DEPORT-OF-PARENTS-OF-US-CIT-FY-2011.pdf (March 2012).

[8] FY 2012: ICE announces year-end removal numbers, highlights focus on key priorities and issues new national detainer guidance to further focus resources, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, http://www.ice.gov/news/releases/1212/121221washingtondc2.htm (Dec. 2012).

[9] Broken Promises: Seeking Political Asylum in America, Ladies Home Journal, http://www.lhj.com/health/news/seeking-political-asylum-in-america/?page=1 (Feb. 2010).

[10] Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinery, Migration Policy Institute http://www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/enforcementpillars.pdf (January 2013).

[11] The Math of Immigration Detention, National Immigration Forum, http://www.immigrationforum.org/images/uploads/MathofImmigrationDetention.pdf (August 2012).

[12] Unlocking Liberty: A Way Forward for U.S. Immigration Detention Policy, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service www.lirs.org/dignity (October 2011).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Visa Bulletin, Department of State, http://travel.state.gov/visa/bulletin/bulletin_5856.html (February 2013).

[15] Repeal the One-Year Asylum Deadline, National Immigrant Justice Center, http://www.immigrantjustice.org/repeal-one-year-asylum-deadline

[16] The One-Year Asylum Deadline and the BIA: No Protection, No Process, National Immigrant Justice Center, http://www.immigrantjustice.org/oneyeardeadline (October 2010).

[17] VAWA Provides Protections for Immigrant Women and Victims of Crime, Immigration Policy Center, http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/just-facts/violence-against-women-act-vawa-provides-protections-immigrant-women-and-victims-crime (May 2012).

[19] Protecting Unaccompanied Migrant Children, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, http://lirs.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/LIRS-Backgrounder-on-Unaccompanied-Migrant-Children-12-2012.pdf (December 2012).