The Human Cost of IIRIRA — Stories From Individuals Impacted by the Immigration Detention System

by Saba Ahmed, Adina Appelbaum, Rachel Jordan

Executive Summary

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

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.


ISSN 2330-2488 (Online), 2331-5024 (Print)  © 2017 by the Center for Migration Studies of New York

Journal on Migration and Human Security: a publication of The Center for Migration Studies of New York
307 E. 60th Street, New York, NY 10022