Immigration: The multiple dangers of the “SAFE” Act

As the U.S. Senate begins to deal with amendments offered from the floor to the main immigration reform bill, S 744, things are getting nasty in the House of Representatives.

On June 6, the House voted, on party lines, 224 to 201 to sabotage the suspension of deportation action that the Obama administration had offered to the “Dreamers”- undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as minor children and who, under S 744, would be eligible for legal status. It did this by voting to block any funding for this DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program to be implemented. A vote in the Senate is required, however, for this to become law.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan committee has been working to craft House legislation parallel to the Senate bill in that it would trade off increased enforcement at the borders and internally, and guest worker programs desired by industry, against the legalization of the vast majority of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. This has been a difficult process due to the Republican majority in the House, but some sort of a bill should be presented soon.

However, the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, is working on a parallel legislative tack, that would involve passing a series of repressive “enforcement only” bills before any consideration could be given to the legalization of any undocumented person. This would destroy the balance among seeking a break for non-criminal undocumented immigrants, giving industry what it wants in terms of cheap labor (guest workers), and introducing new repressive measures.

Boehner is also returning to the policy of former Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert of only advancing legislation for a vote if it has a “majority of a majority” of support, that is that not only must a majority of the House support a bill, but also the majority of the Republican caucus of the House.

The most outrageous “enforcement only” bill that is being advanced by House Republicans is HR 2278, the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement (SAFE) Act. Its main sponsor is Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and so far it has only 22 cosponsors, including hard line anti-immigrant ideologues such as James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Lamar Smith, R-Texas, as well as the tea party’s own Michelle Bachman, R-Minn. However, it is being pushed by Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and fits in with Boehner’s agenda of pushing draconian enforcement legislation first. Hearings began in the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, in spite of a brief protest by immigrants’ rights activists.

The SAFE Act has a number of harsh features but the two that have drawn the most attention are that it would criminalize, at the misdemeanor level, the mere act of being in the country without authorization, and that it would enshrine in federal law the policy of using local and state police to act as immigration enforcement agents.

Currently, entering the country “without inspection” is a federal misdemeanor, but merely being here without authorization (whether by entering without being detected or overstaying a visa) is not; deportation of such people is considered a corrective administrative proceeding. Potentially, the SAFE Act could allow the prosecution of legal resident and U.S. citizen family members of undocumented immigrants for abetting violations of the law, by, for example, providing them with housing or transportation. A bill that did this sort of thing, passed under the sponsorship of Congressman Sensenbrenner in 2005, set off the massive protest demonstrations of the following year and beyond, and was stopped in the Senate.

Deputizing police to be immigration agents is already done through a couple of federal programs, 287 (g) and Secure Communities, but only in specific communities and under supposed federal supervision. Even so, there are complaints that both local police and immigration agents racially profile and harass immigrants under the cover of these programs.

The SAFE Act would give blanket authority to state and local authorities to simply unleash their police on immigrant communities, as attempted in Arizona and other places already. Among other negative effects, this would spoil any cooperation between immigrant communities and local police, affecting the prosecution of crimes.

Other aspects of the SAFE Act would increase the level of incarceration of immigrants, and would block certain categories of people here under political asylum from becoming naturalized as citizens.

The SAFE act was denounced by supporters of immigrants’ rights and civil liberties in the House, including Representatives Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and John Conyers, D-Mich., and by a large number of civic, community, and labor organizations.

The Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, in a statement detailing the most dangerous aspects of the SAFE Act, said [the bill] “does not fix-nor is it even a serious attempt to fix- the widespread problems with our nation’s immigration system. In many respects, it would make the problems worse. It certainly does not create a realistic road to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants who are living and working peacefully in our communities.”

Photo: Pro-immigration reform demonstrators make their voices heard at a rally in Washington, D.C. Jacquelyn Martin/AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.