Human Rights Watch: U.S. Immigration Reform Should Focus on Family Unification

An international human rights organization is stepping into the revived U.S. immigration reform debate, arguing emphasis should be placed less on enforcement and more on keeping families united.

In the 19-page report from Human Rights Watch, released Friday, the human rights group described various examples of immigrants suffering from an inhumane and dysfunctional immigration system.

The briefing included stories of immigrant families who had been torn apart because of the nation's “outdated and inefficient immigration system,” and urged lawmakers to update the family-based component by “granting immigration judges the power to consider family unity as a major factor in all deportation decisions.”

Consequently, the report concluded: “The injustices of the U.S. immigration system have had devastating consequences for millions of people – not just unauthorized immigrants, but their families, their employers, and their communities. By creating a fairer system, the United States can better regulate migration and uphold the rule of law.”

Human Rights Watch, a global leader on the issue of human rights, released its report at a time when national leaders have kicked the topic of comprehensive immigration reform into high gear. On Monday, eight senators – four Democrats and four Republicans – released a five-page proposal for overhauling the immigration system. On Tuesday, Obama unveiled his own plan, a similar approach to the senators albeit with a few differences.

Both proposals essentially tighten enforcement, addressing such things as cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers and bolstering security along the border. And they call for providing certain undocumented immigrants a path to legalization if they meet a broad set of criteria, including learning English, paying fines, documenting a history of paying taxes and passing a criminal background check.

A major difference, however, is how quickly undocumented immigrants can begin working toward legalization. The senators’ proposal calls for reaching a level of success in improving border security and enforcement before the process for a pathway to legalization can begin. The president said that both can be carried out at the same time, and said he objects to making the legalization part contingent on the progress on enforcement.

Human Rights Watch said four principles should guide a reform of the immigration system.

Those are respecting and protecting families, protecting immigrants from workplace violations and crime, including a legalization process that "respects families, protects victims from abuses andcrimes, and acknowledges the contributions of long-term residents," and focusing enforcement efforts on genuine threats and ensure due process rights are protected for all people.