Immigrant Rights: Presenting Issues of Enforcement, Public Policy and Views from the Bench at the HNBA

Albuquerque, NM - At the Hispanic National Bar Association's 34th Annual Convention, I just presented on the issue of "Immigrant Rights."  So I was going to just show a blank screen since immigrants don't enjoy the most basic due process rights in immigration proceedings.  Actually, I provided an overview of the latest actions taken in this area by all three branches of government and and I made the case for passage of immigration reform this year.  My first impression: very encouraged by the fact that the decent size room we were provided was completely full, not one empty seat.  Now, keep in mind that most HNBA members are in private practice and "public interest" law is not exactly part of the day to day work of the pool of mostly corporate litigation, corporate transactional, and criminal lawyers.  So I was encouraged at the sight of a full room, and at hearing our topic discussed over and over at breakfast plenaries, during lunch key note speeches, and even in the corridors of the convention hall.  This tells me that the violations of basic due process and human rights under the guise of immigration law have so permeated our society - particularly our demographic - that even "unusual" suspects, corporate lawyers who have not had immigrants in their families for centuries, are in tune and outraged at some of the most shocking violations of the Constitution in the name of "enforcing immigration law."  

This elite group of Hispanics could all report having clients who have suffered due to the broken immigration system, people who through no fault of their own have been discriminated against as "illegals" merely for the color of their skin, and some reported even being the object of this persecution themselves.  It is clear that the toxicicity of the issue of immigration has spilled over even into our judicial system.  There was a great deal of consensus among judges that the sharp rise in Hispanic defendants sentenced before them is largely due to Hispanic legal residents and undocumented immigrants that are caught in immigration enforcement efforts.  

Judge Martha Vazquez, Chief Judge for the U.S. Circuit Court of New Mexico, called the current immigration broekn system a "system of de facto immigrant criminalization," and highlighted the excessive penalization of immigrants in sentencing because illegal entry is an offense that calls for sentencing enhancement for past offenses.  And U.S. citizens might be guilty of illegal entry - she highlighted the case of a U.S. citizen who travelled to Mexico and while there was robbed of all his documents and wallet.

This defendant decided to just walk back into the U.S., but upon crossing back, he failed to go through customs inspection, which constitutes illegal entry.  Over a decade earlier he had been sentenced for assault and had served his time.  He committed a subsequent offense years later, and because of his "illegal entry," record of prior sentences must be taken into account to enhance a subsequent sentence by several years.  Judge Vazquez's point is that this person was essentially doing time twice for the same offense - he had already been judged for the original offense and carried out his sentence.  But the second sentence forces the judge to have this person serve time again for the prior offense.