#DearObama: Prioritize Fair and Humane Immigration Reform in Your State of the Union

January 20, 2015

(Win McNamee/Getty Images)
(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

This blog is part of a series on human rights in the State of the Union address. The United States has an obligation to pursue policies that ensure respect for human rights at home and around the world. Follow along and join the conversation using #SOTUrights.

Mr. President,

if you really care about immigrants’ rights, in your State of the Union, can you explain why:

  • Since 2001, immigration detention in the United States has more than doubled from just over 200,000 annually under President Bush to 478,000 in 2012, an all-time high?[i]
  • Your administration has deported an average of 390,000 immigrants a year since 2009, with a record 409,000 deportations in 2012?[ii]
  • Your administration deported its 2 millionth immigrant in 2014, while hundreds of thousands of families have been separated during the past six years?

This is a pace of deportation and exposure to abuse that cannot continue. 

In the past two years, you have taken bold moves by offering prosecutorial discretion via Executive Order, first for immigrants who came to the United States as children and more recently for a larger group of undocumented immigrants. This has the potential to provide relief from deportation for as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants who are currently in the United States.

However, this is merely a temporary band-aid for the many ills that plague the USA’s immigration enforcement, detention and deportation system.

While these Executive Orders may prevent several million immigrants who are currently in the United States from facing the human rights abuses documented by Amnesty International – such as arbitrary detention, violations of due process and abuses in detention – it hardly scratches the surface in addressing the systemic issues that lead to these abuses.

Your actions made the necessary step of ridding us of the highly controversial Secure Communities immigration enforcement program, however it unnecessarily increases border enforcement resources, which as Amnesty International has previously documented, places residents of communities and Tribal nations along the border at risk of racial profiling and other abuses.

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As you are likely to address in your speech, it is now up to Congress to take the next bold step by coming together to pass sensible immigration reform. Congress must not preoccupy itself with undoing the President’s Executive Order, but rather pass Comprehensive Immigration reform that is based on human rights principles and adheres to the United States’ obligations under international law. It is time to provide lasting relief to the more than 11 million immigrants in the United States who are out of status and out of options.

Amnesty International USA is calling on you, Mr. President, to use the State of the Union Address to push Congress to pass legislation that creates a fair and humane immigration system that includes all of the following:

  • Provides a formal process through which undocumented people can obtain legal status.  A clear legalization pathway will protect immigrants’ rights.
  • Places immigrants and their communities at the center of the debate on immigration by recognizing and ensuring their role in formulating and implementing strategies to protect their rights.
  • Reviews and revises border control policies and practices to ensure they are compliant with the USA’s obligations under international law and standards, including as pertains to the right to life.
  • Ensures that all immigration laws, policies and practices at the border respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples and adhere to the standards set in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
  • Suspends federal immigration enforcement programs that involve collaboration with state and local law enforcement agencies until it can be determined that the programs can be implemented in a non-discriminatory manner. Immigration laws must not place citizens of Indigenous nations, members of Latino communities and others who are U.S. citizens or who are lawfully in the United States at increased risk of racial profiling.
  • Implements detention as a last resort, and every immigrant and asylum seeker must get a hearing to determine the necessity of custody.
  • Reforms immigration policies that unnecessarily separate families. Immigration judges should have the authority to review all decisions to detain immigrants and the discretion to stop deportation in the interest of family unity, including families headed by same-sex couples. To ensure fairness, these decisions should be subject to federal court review.
  • Protects the rights of immigrants most at risk of crime and human rights abuses, including undocumented immigrants, immigrant women and immigrant children.
  • Reduces labor exploitation by fully guaranteeing immigrant workers’ labor rights, including the right to join unions.

Executive actions are good, but they are not good enough. You must use all tools at your disposal to push congressional action that puts human rights at the forefront of immigration reform. Use this State of the Union to show your unequivocal support for the human rights of all immigrants. If not now, when?

[i] For previous numbers see: http://www.ice.gov/doclib/foia/reports/ero-facts-and-statistics.pdf; for 2012 numbers see: http://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/ois_enforcement_ar_2012_0.pdf.  
[ii] Lower in 2013: http://www.ice.gov/removal-statistics/; Numbers 2009-11: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/09/19/high-rate-of-deportations-continue-under-obama-despite-latino-disapproval/; Record in 2012:  http://www.ice.gov/news/releases/1212/121221washingtondc2.htm