Immigration Law Difficult to Navigate

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Immigration attorney David Leopold, of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, talks with Farai Chideya about the legal challenges relating to immigration, visa and citizenship law.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And now a closer look at immigration and deportation law. Immigration attorney David Leopold is a national executive officer of the American Immigration Lawyer's Association. He joins us from Cleveland, Ohio. Welcome.

Mr. DAVID LEOPOLD (American Immigration Lawyer's Association): Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: So how do you parse out the case that we just heard, where someone has been imprisoned for x amount of time and it's actually the immigration proceedings that pushed him over the limit, is that fair game for the government?

Mr. LEOPOLD: I think the government's got a tough argument, because the government, you know, picks and chooses when it has these hearings. And what they did here was they put him in a position, it seems they had the hearing, he gets the release, the judged ruled in his favor, and then the government, rather than abide by it, takes a technical approach and slows it down. It's kind of like stopping the clock in a football game.

CHIDEYA: So since September 11th, you've defended the rights of non-citizens subject to closed hearings, special registration, mandatory detention, FBI interrogation. Does this deportation case fall into an area of what some people see as overzealous prosecution?

Mr. LEOPOLD: Before and after September 11th, they would have gone after Slick Rick in a case like this. However, they're correct. Slick Rick and his lawyer are right when they say that after September 11th they've been more punitive in applying the law. And you know the government, George Bush in particular, talks constantly about this war on terror, and they've tightened up the immigration enforcement ostensibly to fight this war on terror.

Well, you see them wasting resources on a rapper who apparently has made good, has developed family ties, is an entertainer, has given a lot more back to the community than he took away through his crime. And that's not my opinion, that's apparently what the judge said. You've got to scratch your head and wonder where are our tax dollars going? Where are our security dollars going?

Why are we wasting time on somebody like Slick Rick, when presumably, if you believe what the government says, there are people out there in the population who would really do us harm?

CHIDEYA: Again, we tried to reach the Department of Homeland Security; we didn't hear from them. But let's go back to that law passed at 1996 which calls for foreigners convicted of violent felonies to be deported. How has that law been enforced and who has been sent back?

Mr. LEOPOLD: Well, you know, the law that passed in 1996, which was called IRAIRA, the Illegal Immigration Act. What that law really did was it defined all kinds of simple crimes. You get into a bar fight, or you get into -somebody steals money and is sentenced to a year. Even if they're given just probation, the law went and defined all kinds of crimes like that as serious, aggravated felonies. So it's in the definition where we're talking serious crime, not in reality.

So what does that law do? Let me explain. If somebody has lived in this country for 30, 40 years as illegal immigrants, has a family of five or six kids, hard-working, works for a company, union member whatever, gets into a bar fight one night after work, has a completely clear criminal record. And then what happens says is the judge says, okay, well, this guy has a completely clear criminal record. This is one bad incident. I'm going to sentence to him a to a year, but I'm going to suspend the sentence, that is I'm not going to make him go to jail, and I'm going to impose probation.

Well, do you know that under the 1996 law that individual is going to be automatically deported? He's going to be separated from his family. He's going to be separated from his job even though he has a stellar work record. That's an example, but unfortunately it's an all too real example.

And what this law has done, the 1996 law did and is doing and will continue to do until it's changed, is split up families, split up mothers from their children and fathers from their children and put people on - put young kids on welfare. It's an absolutely abysmal law and it needs to be changed. And as Slick Rick apparently did, you can learn from your mistakes. We need to have some compassion the way that we threat our guests, because that after all is the way that we as a nation and as a culture ultimately will be judged.

CHIDEYA: David Leopold, thank you so much.

Mr. LEOPOLD: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Immigration attorney David Leopold is national executive officer of the American Immigration Lawyer's Association.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Coming up, the president agrees the war in Iraq is looking like the war in Vietnam. And are you literally a diehard fan? Well, Major League Baseball will sell you a logo for your casket. We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable, next.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.

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