Panel to Ease Convicted Immigrant Deportation Rules

A compromise reached over the weekend on a controversial immigration bill that would allow non-citizens convicted of certain crimes to appeal their automatic deportation proceedings has a good chance of passing a critical committee vote Wednesday, according to the chief architect of the legislation.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who authored the "Family Reunification Act," said the changes made to his bill were significant enough to draw support from skeptical Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, which is scheduled to mark up the bill Wednesday.

"With the chairman's support, yes, I think it will pass," said Frank, who called the measure more lenient than current law, but much stricter than the initial bill he introduced.

The current "Sensenbrenner-Frank Amendment" — named after Frank and committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. — to the Immigration and Nationality Act would allow exceptions to the law that calls for automatic deportation of foreign residents convicted of an "aggravated felony." The amendment, a revision of 1996 law, would apply to legal residents in the United States who have been living here for no less than seven years and have had legal resident status for no less than five years.

In the immigration law, the definition of "aggravated felony" includes violent crimes like murder, rape and robbery, but also covers anything from shoplifting and simple marijuana possession — crimes considered misdemeanors and punishable by fine in most domestic courts.

Immigration watchdogs are scratching their heads about the timing of the vote, saying that while the government is trying to crack down on illegal immigrants, the Congress should be considering legislation that would make it tougher for foreign-born criminals to stay in the United States.

"With all of the problems that we are having with immigration, what the rationale is for this now I don't know," charged Mike Hethmon, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "There is no argument to be made that this is going to help our country, that this is going to help our immigrant community."

FAIR estimates that in 2000, approximately 185,000 non-citizens were deported for administrative reasons, like overdue visas, fraud and illegal entry. Of that number, 40,785 were removed for the conviction of a crime.

While the amendment wouldn't change the definition of crimes punishable by deportation, it would allow those convicted of non-violent crimes carrying less than four years prison time to appeal directly to the attorney general's office to reverse the deportation proceedings.

The non-resident would have to be living here legally at the time of the conviction to apply for the appeal. Those who had already been deported under the 1996 law and who qualified under the new terms would also be able to appeal retroactively.

"You've got a young man who at 19 was a jerk and was caught with marijuana, or cocaine or maybe he was shoplifting, but now he's turned around his life, he has a family and kids. But under the law now, he gets deported," said Frank, who noted that when the 1996 law was passed thousands of people were kicked out retroactively, some of whom had spent most of their lives here and had taken plea bargains on petty crimes like public disturbances.

"Shouldn't the attorney general be able to say whether this is a right thing or a wrong thing?" he said.

A compromise requested by panel Republicans includes suspended sentences in the amount of time that counts toward qualifying for the exception. It would also allow the prosecuting attorney in each case to weigh in on the request to stay in the country.

Frank said the legislation "has nothing to do with terrorism," and doesn't even apply to violent offenders, or even convicted persons who have done time for more than one offense, even suspended sentences, no matter what the crime was. It doesn't even guarantee that the immigrant in question will be able to stay once he or she appeals.

"Why is a bad time to do the right thing?" he asked, noting that "political cowardice" might preclude some from voting for his amendment at this time.

A version of the bill passed the House two years ago, but died in the Senate, according to Frank.