Letter to Schumer

October 20, 2009

Dear Senator Schumer:

We write to you as immigration advocates, human rights advocates, civil liberties advocates, and members of community groups and faith-based organizations who want to ensure that U.S. immigration and border policy is implemented in a way that is fair, humane and respectful of individuals' constitutional and human rights. 

We were encouraged by the tone and confidence of your June 24 speech when you said that the time for immigration reform is now and that it can indeed happen.  We were reassured that you recognize family reunification as an important value and priority for immigration reform and that you understand, as most of the American people do, that we cannot simply deport millions of people and say that we have a successful immigration system. 

You stated, "Our system is badly broken.  And, as Pastor Joel Hunter eloquently told the immigration subcommittee last month, our broken system forces good people to break the law because we give people no option to act lawfully."  We applaud your recognition that our current system impels people to break the law and then cruelly punishes them for doing so. We also agree that enforcement-only policies do nothing to remedy a broken immigration system.  Sweeping and indiscriminate enforcement tactics have resulted in ever-increasing detentions and an alarming lack of due process. 

We understand that the American people have valid concerns about immigration.  We also understand that many of these same people are not aware of the arcane system we currently have, but that they are much more sympathetic to the immigrants who have been forced to cross our borders "without documents" when they do become informed about the system's human impact.  We believe that we can work together to create a just and humane immigration system in which the American people can have confidence and also proudly know reflects the best of America's founding principles.

We share a mutual goal: people should not feel forced to leave their home country but, when this occurs, they should be met by an orderly and humane process that respects their constitutional and human rights and also fully welcomes them into our society.  We acknowledge that some factors, which encourage migration, are beyond the control of our government.  However, foreign trade and economic policies that respect the right of developing nations to nurture their economies and the livelihoods of their people will ultimately do more to help control migration flows than costly punitive and inhumane enforcement policies.

We appreciate the commitment you have made to reform the immigration system.  Any proposed changes to our immigration enforcement system must reflect fundamental fairness, cardinal American values, and international human rights norms.  We believe that the following principles are necessary to protect constitutional and human rights when enforcing existing immigration laws in the interior of the country, at the border, and when drafting new immigration bills:

  • Enforceable Detention Standards: DHS must be required to improve, codify, and enforce detention standards in all facilities that detain immigrants to ensure fair and humane treatment, including minimum requirements relating to transfers, language access, medical care, access to counsel, telephone access, and religious practice and visitation.
  • Secure, Community-Based Alternatives to Detention: To avoid wasteful public spending and comply with international obligations, DHS should ensure that detention is only used as a last resort. Custodial alternatives to detention such as electronic monitoring programs should be used only for individuals who would otherwise be subject to detention. DHS should be directed to implement secure non-custodial, community-based alternatives for individuals who do not pose a danger to the community.
  • Fair Day in Court: All individuals should receive their fair day in court. Any legislation should restore meaningful judicial and administrative review and reform the immigration courts to preserve judicial independence. Judges and DHS officials should be able to consider the individual circumstances of each case when making a determination about a person's liberty or eligibility for immigration relief. Detention statutes should be modified to enhance release and parole options for individuals who pose no flight risk or danger to public safety. In every case, the burden should be on the government to demonstrate that detention is necessary. Additional removal grounds should not be added or expanded.
  • Access to Counsel: To ensure individuals have access to information about their legal case and their rights, legislation should provide for national expansion of the Legal Orientation Program and should appoint counsel for all detained individuals, especially for vulnerable populations that include children and mentally ill individuals who are unable to participate meaningfully in their removal proceedings.
  • Federal Enforcement: To protect community security and the integrity of community policing, the federal government should regain control of immigration enforcement. Congress should not expand or fund initiatives that pull state and local law enforcement into federal immigration enforcement, including the 287(g) program and the Secure Communities initiative.
  • Civil Rights: Legislation must ensure that civil rights laws and protections for noncitizens are part of any immigration enforcement action and are enforced throughout the immigration system. Civil rights training should be required for federal immigration officials. Independent oversight mechanisms must be created to monitor and enforce the protection of civil rights, including prohibitions against gender, racial, ethnic and religious profiling.
  • Responsible and Accountable Border Policy. Policies that relate to the border, including parts of New York State, should consider the concerns and needs of border residents through a consultation process. We must strive for border policies that bolster the safety and security by upholding the civil and human rights of border communities and residents. Sensible border policymust ensure that human rights are protected, that the economic prosperity of the region is not compromised and must respect the quality of life of local communities by establishing clear accountability systems and transparent oversight through the creation of a Border Enforcement Review Commission, uniform complaint processes, improved training for federal border agents, and standards for ports of entry and short-term custody.

Considering our shared goal to build an immigration system that is humane and respectful of newcomers, it was disheartening to hear language in your speech that suggests that these same "good people" are criminals or "illegal," particularly when the broken conditions that have impelled their actions have been acknowledged.   

The use of terms such as "illegal" effectively dehumanizes individuals and grants permission to the media and the general public to do the same.  In building a new immigration system, we believe that we also must use language that addresses this as a policy challenge and respectfully characterizes the many people who greatly contribute to this nation.

Any legislation that does not take into consideration the aforementioned principles will only perpetuate the current problems in the immigration system.  All attempts to reform the immigration system must protect people's basic constitutional and human rights, ensure fair process and enforce civil rights, constitutional and labor laws. 

We look forward to your principled leadership and to continue to work with you to create an immigration system that is fair to all.


Click here for a pdf of the letter and the signatories in English

Click here for a pdf of the letter and the signatories in Spanish