I ran into Hillary Clinton recently. We were both at NPR (my employer at the time), giving interviews for our new books. We crossed paths and took a selfie. I congratulated Clinton on her book, Gutsy Women. She graciously asked me about mine.
“It’s called Here We Are,” I told her. “It’s about the decade-long deportation case I fought to keep my father in this country after your husband signed those laws in 1996.” (One of my NPR colleagues remembers overhearing the exchange. Clinton’s team says she has no recollection of it.)
The United States is largely, though not entirely, a nation of immigrants. President Bill Clinton turned his back on this basic truth of American identity in the 1990s. When violent crime was at a historic high, he made the radical move of turning immigrants and immigration into problems to be solved through crime control. The two laws he signed had impressive names: the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.
People are not typically for terrorism or against responsibility. But these titles omit the facts of what the bills did. They expanded the grounds of deportation to include not only serious crimes, but nearly any crime (including misdemeanors); stripped judges of the ability to consider life circumstances in order to grant pardons on a case-by-case basis; required that many of the immigrants facing exile for a crime be imprisoned indefinitely, beyond the period of their sentence, until that exile could take place (even though deportation is a civil, not criminal, proceeding); and subjected newcomers to fast-track deportations in which officers could expel immigrants without any hearing from a judge.