The 1996 passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) has had a devastating impact on immigrants who are detained, indigent, and forced to face deportation proceedings without representation (pro se). In the past 20 years, immigration detention has grown exponentially and a criminal–immigration detention–deportation pipeline has developed as a central function of the immigration system. Despite the growing specter of the “criminal alien” in the American psyche, there is little public knowledge or scrutiny of the vast immigration detention and deportation machine. Enforcement of IIRIRA has effectively erased human stories and narrowed immigration debates to numbers and statistics.
The five vignettes below tell the stories of individuals who have personally experienced the impact of IIRIRA. Part 1 describes the on-the-ground reality of a state public defender’s obligations and struggles to defend immigrants from harsh consequences of criminal convictions. Part 2 provides the perspective of an indigent immigrant fighting his deportation pro se. Part 3 describes a nonprofit immigration attorney’s challenges in providing legal services to detained immigrants. Part 4 is a glimpse into the brisk pace of an immigration judge’s detained docket. Part 5 tells the story of a detained immigrant’s family member and the many hoops she must jump through to ensure he has a fighting chance in immigration court. Collectively, these vignettes provide a realistic picture of the immigration detention experience, revealing the human cost of IIRIRA.