In 1996, America clamped down on immigrants.
Jim Bunn watched it happen.
Now, he sees the effects in person.
Bunn rode the Republican wave into Congress in 1994, elected from Oregon's 5th congressional district. "We were saying, 'Let's do something; let's get tough on crime, on welfare and on illegal immigrants,' " he says.
Today Bunn works as a guard at Yamhill County Jail and watches immigrants sit in detention for months - even years - because of the laws enacted four years ago.
"I could not have anticipated how bad that bill was until people started showing up in jail," Bunn says.
In 1996, an estimated 4 million illegal immigrants lived in the United States with 300,000 more arriving each year. Three years earlier, the World Trade Center bombing raised Americans' fears about the nation's permeable borders. In 1994, Californians passed Proposition 187, curbing public services to illegal immigrants. It was later overturned by the courts.
After 40 years in the minority, GOP leaders promised real change in immigration law, citing polls that showed more than 70 percent of Americans wanted such reform.
Now, even some who championed the reforms say they went too far.
Former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, led the most aggressive changes to immigration laws in 20 years. They aimed to close the Mexican border, end abuse of political asylum, cut federal benefits for illegal immigrants and restrain the spiraling numbers of visas granted to families.
Smith and Simpson hoped to curb legal immigration, too. But the White House pressured Congress to instead focus on illegal immigration.
"Since the House and Senate failed to do anything with legal immigration, they got very restrictive, almost draconian with the illegal immigration," Simpson says.
Congress also backed away from getting tough with employers who hire illegal immigrants - even though a few years earlier a bipartisan committee had concluded that "reducing the employment magnet is the linchpin" of any strategy to curb illegal immigration.
Instead, Congress zeroed in on individuals.
Democrats and Republicans usually settle differences between the House and Senate in an official conference committee. With the immigration bill, Republicans met in September 1996 during weekend meetings in then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's office.
One provision - directing the INS to deport non-citizens with criminal records, no matter how old or small the offense - was a last-minute, surprise addition to the bill.
"It was outrageous," says Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., a member of the subcommittee on immigration for 16 years. "They couldn't crack down on legal immigration; so they decided to make it as tough as possible for those already here."
President Clinton signed the 1996 Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act which, combined with an anti-terrorism measure, boosted the size of the INS, now the biggest federal law-enforcement agency.
The reforms also:
Overnight, the law made tens of thousands of people deportable and stripped their rights to have judges consider their cases.
- Barred illegal immigrants from re-entering the United States for as long as 10 years;
- Permitted people arriving without proper documents to be deported immediately;
- Lowered the threshold of deportable crimes to include offenses such as shoplifting and petty theft.
While the INS agreed with Congress' attempt to more efficiently remove people who came illegally or visitors who committed crimes, the laws "can generate results that are too harsh and go too far," says Bo Cooper, INS general counsel.
Finding the brunt of the law
A conservative, Bunn voted against the immigration bill.
In Yamhill County Jail, he saw the new immigration law at work. He lost his seat in 1996 and became a corrections officer at the jail.
|Former Congressman Jim Bunn has met dozens of INS detainees as a corrections officer at the Yamhill County Jail.(Kathryn Osler/The Oregonian)
He found five Chinese asylum-seekers detained for weeks without anyone trying to learn whether they spoke Cantonese or Mandarin.
He met a young Oregonian being deported to Brazil, a country the young man hadn't seen since infancy and a language he had never spoken.
He met a successful Oregonian businessmen jailed for a drug conviction 20 years earlier.
He met a Sri Lankan fleeing to her family in Canada, jailed more than two years after the INS stopped her at the airport. She never smiled.
Bunn tracked down translators, Chinese and Russian bibles and dictionaries for the detainees. He wrote people who were deported. He told The New York Times and The Oregonian about his outrage over the Chinese asylum seekers' treatment. Then, Bunn came to work one day and learned the INS had transferred them.
"I am just appalled," Bunn says. "It used to be we had people who had done something bad in jail. Now we have people who are doing what our ancestors did: fleeing poverty and persecution, and we are locking them up."