American Immigration Council: SAFE Act Would Set Back Immigration Reform

Many astute observers think the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill probably would pass in the House, if it were given an up-or-down vote there. The world may never know, because House Speaker John Boehner has pledged to serve up immigration reform à la carte, in a series of piecemeal measures. It remains to be seen which bills will get floor consideration, but most observers expect the legislative menu to be limited – though thickly larded with symbolic measures that will only be palatable to the most conservative elements of Boehner’s caucus.

One such measure is the so-called SAFE Act, which would further intensify immigration enforcement efforts and make unlawful presence a criminal offense, among other things. The title says it all: the acronym stands for the “Strengthen And Fortify Enforcement Act.” The bill was passed out of the House Judiciary Committee back in June on a party-line vote, and remains highly controversial.

In a recent article, the American Immigration Council’s (AIC) in-house think tank, the Immigration Policy Center (IPC), warned that the SAFE Act would be a giant step backward for immigration reform, if the House were to take up the measure. [See Cracking the SAFE Act, American Immigration Council, Immigration Policy Center, 27.Aug.2013.] Why? Because, as the IPC article explains: “The House Judiciary’s endorsement of an outdated philosophy that touts more enforcement, more detention, more penalties, and a more complicated, expensive, and decentralized immigration enforcement system flies in the face of the House leadership’s repeated pledge to fix that very system.”

According to the IPC, the SAFE Act is an artifact of an earlier time in the immigration reform debate, in the middle of the last decade, before a massive run-up in border enforcement spending drastically reduced the flow of illegal immigration across America’s southwestern border. [See Illegal Immigration Hits New Low: One Less Hurdle for CIR? MurthyBlog, 29.Sep.2011.] The bill’s treatment of undocumented immigrants is similarly outdated, viewing them as a net drag on the economy, ignoring the mountain of evidence that’s piled up since then, documenting their economic contributions in detail.

Alongside provisions that would criminalize unlawful presence, expand immigration detention, and create new, draconian penalties for various immigration violations, IPC shows that the SAFE Act also would “attempt to overturn last year’s ruling by the Supreme Court in Arizona v. U.S. that limited states’ ability to enact their own immigration laws because immigration is the domain of federal law.” In other words, were the SAFE Act to prevail, immigration would be governed by an overlapping patchwork of federal, state, and local laws, in the manner envisioned by Arizona’s infamous S.B. 1070; actual enforcement would fall increasingly to state and local authorities, making our immigration system less consistent, efficient, and transparent – not more.

In other words, as the IPC’s insightful analysis makes abundantly clear, the SAFE Act is precisely what we don’t need if the point of immigration reform is to modernize and streamline our immigration system, and provide greater fairness, efficiency, and transparency for everyone. To be clear: the SAFE Act has no real chance of passing in the Senate – much less being signed into law by President Obama – but even a symbolic vote sets a bad precedent, and could needlessly complicate negotiations on a final House-Senate conference bill. One hopes the House leadership will exercise good judgment and keep the SAFE Act off the table this fall.

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