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Researchers: Immigration reform should focus on families, less on security

WASHINGTON - The Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill is a step in the right direction, but it puts too much emphasis on border security and not enough on helping families stay together, a group of researchers said Thursday.

The University of Arizona students were in Washington to discuss their six-year study that found that most people who cross the border illegally do so not for a job, but because they have family here or they consider the U.S. home.

"It's a basic human right for U.S.-citizen children to have an intact family," said Jeremy Slack, one of the doctoral students behind the report.

But Slack said current immigration policy fails to help those families. And fellow researcher Emily Peiffer said the reform under consideration in the Senate places too much emphasis on border security and not enough on families.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and one of the "Gang of 8″ behind the reform bill, "would strongly disagree with the notion that immigration reform places too great an emphasis on border security," a spokeswoman said Thursday.

"Sen. Flake fought hard to ensure that border security was a critical part of the bill," and most residents along the border agree with that position, said Genevieve Rozansky, the spokeswoman.

But the researchers pointed to their study, which found that just over half of deported immigrants had U.S. family members and 22 percent had children in the U.S. Increased border protection will not deter such immigrants, they said.

"What good does it actually do to kick these people out?" Slack asked.

Among other findings, the group said its interviews with 1,113 recently deported people found that nearly 75 percent had lived or worked in the U.S. and 28 percent said their home was here. More than half planned to cross the border again, and 25 percent said they would try to cross within a week of being deported.

"Creating more opportunities to keep families together is fundamental for a functional immigration system," the researchers wrote in the report.

But just because immigrants may have family members who are here legally, "that doesn't justify coming to the U.S. illegally," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. The person who comes here illegally is responsible, not the family that's left behind, he said.

Phoenix immigration lawyer Regina Jefferies said many of her clients are encouraged by the immigration reform bill, saying any change in the current system is a step in the right direction.

The bill creates broader waivers and gives more discretion to judges in immigration law, Jefferies said, allowing for leniency in extreme circumstances.

Lawmakers understand that the current immigration process is broken, and the comprehensive immigration bill is testament to that, Peiffer said. Despite good intentions, however, problems remain in the legislation.

In addition to the focus on border security, Peiffer said the visa sponsorship program also needs to be fixed. Many immigrants are eligible for a visa sponsorship because they have U.S. family but are disqualified for other reasons, such as providing a false citizenship claim.

The researchers said they hope their research will guide lawmakers as they take up the bill, which is expected to be on the Senate floor next month.

"I hope it humanizes the human migration and immigration process," Slack said.

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