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Who Would the SAFE Act Endanger?

SOURCE: AP/Ross D. Franklin

Oscar Hernandez, 11, is comforted by his older brother, Carlos Hernandez. Oscar and Carlos's mother is in jail and facing deportation on immigration charges.

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With the end of the shutdown debate, attention in Washington has returned to immigration reform. This summer, the Senate passed a comprehensive bill that would redesign our nation’s outdated immigration laws by a bipartisan supermajority of 68–32. Up to this point, the House has taken a piecemeal approach, moving bills that purport to address different parts of the immigration system through the committee process. One bill in particular should be on the radar of most Americans because of its extreme reach and outrageously harsh penalties. It’s the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act, or SAFE Act, which passed out of the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote in June.

The SAFE Act does not attempt to resolve the status of the 11.7 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States nor does it modernize our country’s legal immigration system. Rather, the SAFE Act puts immigration enforcement on steroids, making undocumented status and overstaying a visa federal crimes instead of civil offenses punishable only by deportation.[1] Here are a few examples of people who would run afoul of the SAFE Act’s unlawful presence and visa violation provisions and could be swept into the criminal justice system:

  • The undocumented: The SAFE Act makes the act of being in the country without authorization a criminal offense, punishable by fines, arrest, and jail time; it is currently not a criminal offense and can only be punished by removal. A mother who entered the United States without inspection 20 years ago and raised a family here would be criminally liable under the SAFE Act. Under the SAFE Act, all state and local police are deputized to enforce immigration law. So if local police stopped that mother on her way to drop off her kids at school, she could face six months in prison before being placed in deportation proceedings. Because the SAFE Act would prevent immigration officials from using prosecutorial discretion to focus their limited resources on serious criminals and repeat immigration offenders rather than parents working to feed their families, this mother would have no chance of being able to remain in the United States with her family.
  • Visa violators: An international student in the United States on an F-1 student visa who drops a class and does not meet the visa’s full course-load requirement would be considered to have violated the visa requirements after just a single day and could face up to two years in prison in the United States before being deported. Under the SAFE Act, the student would be ineligible to be readmitted to the United States on a visa and would not be able to finish his studies in the United States.
  • Visa overstayers: A CEO who has overstayed her authorized period of admission by a single day due to an event such as a cancelled flight could face up to two years in prison in the United States before being deported. Like the student, the CEO would be ineligible to be readmitted to the United States on a visa.

The reach of the SAFE Act extends beyond the people who have immigrated unlawfully to the United States or overstayed or violated the terms of their immigrant visa, however. The SAFE Act would also make criminals of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents who might interact with undocumented immigrants in their day-to-day activities. Here are just a few examples:

  • Clergy members: The SAFE Act subjects anyone who transports a person—knowing that the person is in the U.S. without legal status—to severe criminal penalties, including fines and the possibility of up to five years in jail. This means that a priest or a rabbi who gives an undocumented parishioner a ride home after a religious service, to a doctor’s appointment, or to school could face a five-year prison sentence. Religious organizations are only spared criminal charges if the person they are assisting is an undocumented minister or missionary serving as a volunteer.
  • Soccer moms: Like the clergy member, a soccer mom who carpools her daughter’s soccer teammates to afternoon practice could face up to five years in prison if she is caught driving a girl who the mom knows is undocumented. The SAFE Act does not make exceptions for age or the circumstances surrounding the person one would casually help.
  • Domestic abuse counselors: A counselor who assists victims of domestic violence and gives a battered woman and her children a ride to a shelter could face jail time under the SAFE Act—just like the clergy member and the soccer mom—if the counselor knows the abused woman entered the United States without authorization. There are no waivers or exceptions based on the circumstances of the case.
  • Relatives: Under the SAFE Act, those who “harbor” a person with the knowledge that the person is undocumented are subject to severe criminal penalties, and any property used to “harbor” the undocumented immigrant becomes subject to civil forfeiture laws. Because harboring could mean providing shelter to an undocumented immigrant, a homeowner who shares a home with their undocumented immigrant relative could be subject to fines, jail time, or even have their home seized.

We do not believe that the overwhelming majority of Americans who agree that the time has come for Congress to enact common-sense immigration reform also believe that mothers, priests, and counselors should be put behind bars as part of reform. House members should abandon this dangerous piece of legislation and begin work on legislation that will address the longstanding problems with our immigration system.

Ann Garcia is an Immigration Policy Analyst with the Center for American Progress.



[1] The SAFE Act also grants states and localities the right to enact civil or criminal immigration laws that mirror provisions in federal law and gives state and local enforcement agencies unprecedented authority to enforce federal, state, and local immigration laws. The SAFE Act gives local and state police the power to investigate, apprehend, arrest, and detain persons for violations of immigration law, effectively acting as a nationalization of Arizona’s anti-immigrant bill S.B. 1070, which was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in June 2012. These provisions undermine the trust of communities of color, encourage racial profiling, and make everyone less safe.

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