U.S. Immigration Policy

A close-up of an American flag, blowing in the wind
An airport sign reading “Immigration” in English and Khmer
The Statue of Liberty

They wait until my brother has the job, family, kids—everything!  Car, rent a home, they take everything away. And our family just—fall apart.
— Sharon Couch, sister of deportee Loeun Lun

SENTENCED HOME follows three young men caught up in the legal system and facing deportation to their native Cambodia for crimes committed in their youth. Explore the legislation that sealed their fates, and examine the history and impact of U.S. immigration policy.

A Brief History of Immigration Legislation

In America today, the topic of immigration reveals an increasing tension between historical pride in the immigrant experience and growing insecurities about imported terrorism, shifting demographics and economic uncertainty.

Approximately 900,000 legal immigrants arrive in the United States every year, joined by an estimated 300,000 illegal immigrants who, as of 2007, total nearly five million. To control these numbers, the United States relies on its immigration laws to prevent non-citizens from entering or remaining in the country.

Historically in the U.S., fear has been a dominating influence upon immigration legislation. The Alien Act of 1798 empowered the president to deport all non-citizens he deemed “dangerous.” By 1882, Chinese immigrants were banned, along with “idiots, lunatics, convicts and people likely to become public charges.”

In 1952 the McCarran-Walter Act laid the groundwork for contemporary immigration law, outlining deportation procedures, a quota system and politically based criteria for entry. Over the decades immigration laws saw periodic changes, but it wasn’t until 1996 that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act truly and drastically changed U.S. immigration policy.

The seal of the Department of Justice, with an image of an eagle and an American flag

The 1996 Immigration Acts

In 1996, following the first World Trade Center attack and Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which made deportation mandatory for all legal permanent residents sentenced to a year or more for “aggravated felonies,” “moral turpitude” or controlled substances. This act, along with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, made deportation of legal non-residents much faster and more frequent by considering increasingly minor criminal offenses automatically deportable.

Closing Doors

Critics of the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act point out that definitions of what constitutes crimes of “moral turpitude” or “aggravated felony” are intentionally vague and frequently changed to increase the number of deportable individuals. As a result, non-citizens are subject to laws that apply no matter how long ago their crime was committed, regardless of time-served, without recourse to judicial review or appeal and without the chance to challenge their deportation based on ties to family or length of time in the U.S., even if they arrived as infants.

Deportation without Representation

Few people would argue against deporting felons who commit murder, rape or are violent gang members. But when a minor mistake made years in the past automatically results in permanent separation from family and a life sentence to a third world country, as with the young men profiled in SENTENCED HOME, even representatives in Congress say the American legislative system has run off course.

For immigrants, lack of representation in court is an added complication when considering the 1996 legislation. Since immigration courts are civil rather than criminal, the right to counsel does not apply, so a large majority of immigrants face deportation proceedings without the fundamental American right of representation.

In the past, immigration judges could weigh factors such as an immigrant’s ties to the community, lawful good behavior and tax-paying work history. That judge could also consider the economic or political hardship an immigrant and his family would experience as a result of deportation. But now, the 1996 laws severely restrict judges from waiving deportations, so they are left with no alternative except to order the immigrant’s removal.

Reform and Responsibility

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 increased criminal penalties for immigration-related offenses while enhancing border enforcement and expediting deportations. The act further requires immigrants to have at least three employment authorization verifications, it restricts non-citizens from acquiring public benefits and it imposes new requirements on sponsors of relatives for immigration.

The act eliminates a "suspension of deportation" practice, which had previously allowed immigrants without a criminal history protection from deportation. It imposes new rules for immigrants choosing “voluntary departure” as a means to avoid deportation and being barred forever from returning to the United States. Now “voluntary departure” is only available to applicants physically in the U.S. for at least one year and “of good moral character for five years.”

No Second Chances

For immigrants, perhaps the most disturbing effect of the 1996 legislation has been the elimination of judicial review. Not only are non-citizens vulnerable to retroactive convictions of deportable offenses—including minor crimes like shoplifting committed decades earlier—but these convictions trigger an irreversible chain reaction that ends in permanent exile without a chance to protest.

While deportation may be an appropriate punishment for serious crimes, some say the 1996 legislations simply changed the definitions of “serious crimes” in order to increase the number of deportations, undermining some of America’s most cherished principles in the improbable hope of keeping terrorism forever outside the gate.

Recent Developments

In 2003, jurisdiction over immigration laws changed hands, moving from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to the Department of Homeland Security, signaling a clear connection between fears about terrorism within U.S. borders and immigration law.

In 2004, the Department of Homeland Security launched “Operation Endgame,” a strategy to remove all deportable aliens within 10 years. In 2005, a Homeland Security Spending Bill increased funds for immigration law enforcement to ten billion dollars, significantly raising the number of border patrol agents, immigration investigators and interior detention personnel.

In 2006, Congress began considering more reform proposals that would impose even harsher restrictions for immigrants who have broken the law and expand the definition of deportable crimes even further. As a result, minor past offenses can increasingly be used as grounds for expulsion.

Read about the people featured in SENTENCED HOME >>

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