Bill would punish nations that reject own emigrants
By Eunice Moscoso
Cox News Service
WASHINGTON The United States is facing a major obstacle in its efforts to deport thousands of illegal immigrants, including many convicted felons: Their home countries don't want them back.
This does not sit well with Sen. Arlen Specter, a veteran lawmaker and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Specter, R-Pa., was stunned by the situation after touring several prisons in his home state where taxpayer dollars are spent to house foreigners who have served their sentences but could not be deported. In response, he drafted legislation that would punish countries that refuse to take back illegal immigrants.
“There is an enormous problem of public safety, which is slightly under the radar screen,” Specter said last month at a press conference about the legislation. Specter noted that the convicted felons could be held for only six months in jail before they were released into the general public.
The measure the Accountability in Immigrant Repatriation Act of 2008 was recently introduced in the Senate and the House.
It would require the Department of Homeland Security to report to Congress every 90 days on the countries that refuse repatriation. Those nations would automatically be denied all immigrant visas until they took their citizens back. The bill also would deny certain types of foreign aid to the countries.
As of February, at least eight countries were refusing to take back 139,000 illegal immigrants that the United States has ordered deported Vietnam, Jamaica, China, India, Ethiopia, Laos, Eritrea and Iran according to Specter's office. They include 18,000 convicted felons.
More countries refuse to take back their emigrants, but the eight were the major violators, staffer members said.
The Department of Homeland Security did not provide more current numbers or a list of all countries after several inquiries.
The nations cite different reasons for why they refuse to take back the illegal immigrants to the United States, experts said.
Some believe the individuals would cause political unrest in their home country. Others contend that they shouldn't have to take care of citizens who became criminals in the United States.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said last month that China is the worst violator.
Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University Law School and a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, said that China is trying hard to take back citizens who have violated Chinese laws, such as smuggling money from the government, but it's less interested in taking back those who have violated the laws of other nations.
“It's a big problem,” he said.
Once they serve their sentence in the United States, convicted felons who are in the country illegally can be held for only 180 days because of a 2001 Supreme Court decision. After that, they are released into the general population.
Specter wants to explore the possibility of detaining the illegal immigrants longer until they can be deported to their home countries.
Chertoff said that a better avenue for resolving the problem would be prisoner-exchange treaties with each nation.
Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who is a key liaison to the White House on immigration, said he supports the idea of punishing nations that refuse to take back illegal immigrants, but he has not read the specifics of Specter's legislation.
“There ought to be some consequences to encourage the countries to cooperate with us,” he said. “If the home country won't take them, then we're basically stymied.”
Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said that Cuba in particular has refused to take back its citizens for years, including convicted felons.
“We have criminals in jail that have been there for many, many years that Cuba refuses to take back,” Martinez said. “I would welcome any opportunity that we have to force countries to do the right thing.”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said he supports Specter's bill and called it a “common-sense” approach.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he favors the concept of punishing countries that refuse to take back illegal immigrants, and he looks forward to fully reviewing the legislation.
Muzaffar Chishti, who heads the New York office of the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank, said that strong economic relationships with countries such as India and China make it highly unlikely that Congress will enact Specter's bill.
“We are not going to clamp down on trade visas because of this,” he said.
Chishti added that the bill amounted to political “grandstanding” and that the United States already has the power to use the issuance of visas as a tool to punish countries and doesn't do it.
Specter, however, said that the prospects for the bill are “pretty good” and that the concern about hurting economic relations must be weighed against “safety on our streets.”
The bill would allow the president to request an exemption for any particular country, giving some flexibility for diplomatic situations.
Law professor Cohen said Specter's bill could have a major impact even if it never becomes law, because other countries might become alarmed that is it gaining momentum and that a powerful senator is pushing it.
“If there was some serious steam behind this, many countries would shape up,” he said.