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Backers softening laws on migrants

GOP Senate candidate Bill McCollum offers a reform of the deportation act that critics say does not go far enough.

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© St. Petersburg Times, published August 28, 2000

Four years ago, as an anti-immigrant mood swept the country, Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida was among the biggest boosters of a new law that required deportation of non-citizens convicted of felonies.

Now, as he runs for the U.S. Senate, McCollum acknowledges that the law went too far and brought grief and hardship to countless families. The Orlando-area Republican is sponsoring a bill that could lead to the return of some immigrants who already have been deported, including the son of a former GOP official in McCollum's home county.

But while McCollum's bill could bring relief to some, it doesn't go nearly far enough in addressing the underlying harshness and unfairness of the 1996 Immigration Reform Act, critics say.

"I think Congress should start over and redo the 1996 laws because there are so many problems with this legislation," says Josh Bernstein, senior policy analyst for the National Immigration Law Center.

"I hope . . . the result would be something that brings us much closer to fairness than the McCollum bill would do."

The bill would take some steps toward correcting what many consider the worst part of the 1996 law: mandatory deportation of non-citizens convicted of certain felonies, even those committed before the law took effect. Thousands already have been deported under the retroactive provisions, including many legal, permanent residents who had long since served their sentences and gone on to lead productive, law-abiding lives.

The bill, introduced late last month by McCollum and eight other lawmakers, would do away with retroactivity for some offenses. It would also permit some immigrants who have been deported since 1996 to apply for readmission to the United States.

"I think the obvious took place, and that is that you began to see cases come to various congressmen's offices which had very great humanitarian need," McCollum told National Public Radio in explaining his sponsorship of the bill. (The St. Petersburg Times was unable to reach him for comment.)

However, the McCollum bill contains many exceptions. It would do nothing to help thousands of immigrants convicted of certain crimes, including some Floridians whose travails have been chronicled by the Times:

Hadi Alyasin of Pasco County was 18 when he had consensual sex with an underage girl he thought was older. In 1998 he was deported to his native Syria although his crime, lewd and lascivious act on a minor, occurred before the 1996 immigration law took effect and was not even considered a deportable offense at the time he committed it. McCollum's bill does not apply to sex crimes, so Alyasin likely will be barred from the United States and not be able to see his elderly parents for at least the next 18 years.

In 1981, Catherine Caza of Holiday was sentenced to five years' probation for selling LSD and Quaaludes to a boyfriend who turned out to be an undercover cop. Now a social worker and college student, Caza has since led such a clean life that she received a governor's pardon in 1998. But she faces deportation to her native Canada because McCollum's bill does not address drug offenses, regardless of how long ago they occurred.

After his wife left the family, Luis Espinoza of Ruskin had to raise their four children alone. In 1998, he was deported to Mexico because of an old drug-possession charge, leaving his 10-year-old twin boys and two teenage daughters to care for themselves. The immigration judge expressed sympathy for the Espinozas but said the 1996 law was so restrictive that he could do nothing to help them. Because his crime involved drugs, Espinoza, like Caza, would get no help under McCollum's bill.

The 1996 law "was designed to go after major drug trafficking," says Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "Yet the definition now scoops up in its net even the most minor drug offenses so that someone with a substance abuse problem could be punished like a major trafficker. (McCollum's) bill doesn't touch any of the drug-related offenses."

However, the bill could clear the way for some deported immigrants to return as long as their crimes did not involve drugs or sex. Among the possible beneficiaries: Robert Anthony Broley, whose mother volunteered for McCollum's re-election campaign and whose father was Republican Party treasurer of Orange County, McCollum's base.

Broley, then 32, was deported to Canada in 1998 after his release from a Florida prison, where he had spent four years on charges that included forging $4,175 worth of Republican Party checks.

McCollum drew heavy criticism after he introduced a private bill to bring Broley back from Canada. The measure would have helped only Broley and not addressed the plight of other deported immigrants, many with far less serious criminal records.

At the time, McCollum denied he was acting because of personal interests -- he said he barely knew Broley's parents. However, he said, Broley's banishment was "an injustice, if not corrected."

Since then McCollum and other members of Congress have been bombarded with complaints that the 1996 immigration law was too harsh. The outcry has been so great that even strong supporters of the law like McCollum and Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, began to realize changes were needed.

"One of the things we've seen is that there are people in every district who have been unfairly victimized by this legislation," says Bernstein of the National Immigration Law Center. "Every member of Congress is having to deal with the problems this legislation is creating because there are situations that are really unconscionable."

Bernstein says it is not surprising that McCollum, a backer of the 1996 law, is now one of the leading proponents of change.

"He has a higher profile politically: He supported (the law) and he's running for high office, so those things put him more in the hot seat than maybe some other members" of Congress, Bernstein says.

Other parts of the 1996 Immigration Reform Act initially drew more attention, but the crime-related provisions have been the most disruptive and heart-breaking for immigrant families.

In reaction to the World Trade Center bombing and other foreign-inspired terrorist acts, Congress in 1996 expanded the list of "aggravated felonies" -- those punishable by a year or more in prison -- for which non-citizens can be deported for 20 years.

It also made the law retroactive so that even a legal permanent resident who went on to lead an exemplary life could be deported for a crime committed long ago. Moreover, the new law gave immigration judges no discretion to consider mitigating factors: If you're deportable, out you go.

McCollum's bill is one of several that would amend the law to varying degrees. However, his is given a strong chance of passage before Congress adjourns this fall because some of the co-sponsors also backed the 1996 measure.

Although critics say the McCollum bill doesn't go nearly far enough, it could still help many people who are battling deportation.

Among them is a mentally retarded Tampa Bay man who could be deported to his native Iran, where he has no friends or family, because of a burglary he committed 12 years ago.

Pressure from immigrants rights groups may have helped Congress "see the unjustice of punishing somebody after they've already paid the penalty," says the man's attorney, John Ovink of Tampa.

"If I steal and know that I'm going to get deported, fine, that's the risk and that's the penalty," he said. "But if I do something wrong and pay the penalty and then 20 years later they say, "Oh, now we're going to deport you for it,' that's like double jeopardy."

- Susan Martin can be contacted at

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