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The 1996 Immigration Laws Come of Age


Twenty-one years ago, in direct response to an attack perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh, a U.S. citizen and anti-government terrorist, Congress perversely enacted a set of punitive laws aimed not at white nationalists, but at immigrants. These 1996 laws generated three important shifts in immigration law and policy by radically expanding grounds for deportability while shrinking paths to deportation relief, creating a substantial role for sub-federal governmental entities in immigration investigation and enforcement, and rendering lawful permanent resident status more precarious. Simultaneously, Congress prompted the ad hoc creation of a host of liminal legal statuses bestowed by Executive Branch officials seeking to moderate the harsh effects of the laws. The 1996 laws significantly expanded the reach of the carceral state, particularly with respect to foreign nationals, while simultaneously kneecapping federal and state social support for immigrants. In short, the legal regime established in 1996 ushered in a new era of immigration severity and the resulting enforcement policies soon followed the path laid out in the misguided criminal enforcement policies of the wars on crime and drugs. Like the sweeping crime bills that had preceded them, the 1996 laws generated a highly racialized system of enforcement purportedly justified by crime control imperatives. Like those earlier laws, the 1996 laws have had little measurable impact on public safety, even as they have normalized vast systems of carceral control over immigrant communities. By systemically promoting a narrative that equated immigrants and crime, these laws laid the groundwork for the ultimate electoral triumph of Donald J. Trump in the presidential election of 2016.