Lawyers’ group may back changes in immigration law

The Associated Press
Saturday February 17, 2001

SAN DIEGO — The 400,000-member American Bar Association is likely to back several changes in immigration law that advocates say would treat women, children and even accused terrorists more fairly. 

The leadership of the lawyers’ organization will vote Monday on recommendations that in granting asylum, the government consider whether a woman may face persecution in her home country because of her sex. 

The Justice Department has already proposed rule changes making it easier for women to make that claim, but advocates at the ABA want a change to the overarching Immigration and Nationality Act. 

The ABA is expected to vote Monday to recommend changes to a 1996 law that made it far easier for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to use secret evidence against noncitizens. The INS has typically done so in cases of suspected terrorism, citing the potential damage to national security if the evidence became public. 

Another recommendation would have the ABA support government-funded lawyers for unaccompanied children during immigration proceedings and a Justice Department office to handle the special needs of children at all stages of the immigration process. 

The ABA recommendations would have no direct legal effect, but the organization would likely back them up with lobbying efforts and friend-of-the-court briefs in relevant court cases. 

The Justice Department’s proposed rule change would allow victims of domestic violence to be considered members of a “social group,” one of five categories in U.S. immigration law along with religion, race, nationality and political beliefs. 

Lawyers advising the ABA on the matter say that may not go far enough, because agency rules do not carry the same weight as laws passed by Congress. 

They also want the “social group” to include women who fear genital mutilation, sexual slavery, forced marriage, forced abortion and other abuses. 

A Palestinian academic jailed for three years without trial is the latest example of what some lawyers call abuse of the government’s power to use secret evidence against noncitizens. 

Mazen Al-Najjar was released in December without ever seeing the evidence behind the government’s allegation that he was a front for Islamic terrorists. 

Secret evidence has long been used in terrorism, espionage and other sensitive cases. But in 1996, Congress passed an anti-terrorism law that made it far easier for the INS to use secret evidence to deport noncitizens. 

The courts, Congress and the executive branch all recognize the need to use classified information in immigration matters and to keep the evidence secret, said INS spokeswoman Karen Kraushaar. 

The policy before the ABA would oppose secret evidence in most immigration cases. An exception would allow the government to supply unclassified summaries in “extraordinary cases where there are legitimate national security concerns.” 

Legislation introduced in both houses during the last congressional session would have repealed portions of the 1996 law. The measures did not pass before the session ended. 

A spokeswoman for Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., said he will reintroduce his measure, which was cosponsored by another Democrat and two Republicans, when Congress reconvenes later this month. 

There may be greater bipartisan support this time out. 

During his second campaign debate with Democratic candidate Al Gore, President Bush seemed to oppose the use of secret evidence as racially biased.