How One Teen Almost Got Her Mother Deported the US Deported 50,000 Criminals in 1997. but Critics Say the Law's Definition of Who Is a Criminal Is Too Harsh

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Monica Villanueva is like many mothers with 18-year-old girls - worried about her daughter's future and prone to disagreements with her about the need for curfews and house rules.

What Ms. Villanueva, a legal resident of the United States from Mexico, didn't know until it was almost too late is that just one instance of overzealous discipline could have gotten her thrown out of the country.

On a recent night, Villanueva's daughter Isabel (not their real names) came home from a date after 2 a.m. In the ensuing argument, a discomfited mother did something "I'd never done before," Villanueva says - she struck her daughter with a stick.

Under the 1996 immigration reform, domestic violence is now a deportable offense.

"They told me at the police station I could be heading back to Mexico," says Villanueva, her voice still expressing bewilderment. "I was pretty scared, I didn't know about this law," adds Isabel, who quickly dropped the charges she filed to get even with her mother.

The Villanuevas are among thousands of legal immigrant families across the US learning - sometimes the hard way - about tough new aspects of the 1996 immigration law.

Supporters say the measures are needed to rid the country of criminals before they become citizens. But critics counter that application of the new law is ripping apart families over minor offenses and giving too much power to immigration officials. Often in deportation cases, a spouse or child is a citizen, so the measures are splitting up American families, they add. "There are many scary aspects of this legislation, but one of the worst things is how it creates a double standard of treatment and a double set of rights for citizens and legal residents," says Laura Valdez, director of the Border Rights Coalition in El Paso, Texas.

Citing the new law's expansion of what is an aggravated felony for purposes of deportation, Ms. Valdez says, "You can be a US citizen and mess up, and that's fine. But if you're a legal resident, you're basically a good person ... and you make one mistake," she adds, "even if it was 20 years ago and you already paid your dues, you can now be deported."

Previously, a deportable offense was any aggravated felony that resulted in a conviction of five or more years. The 1996 law changed that to any conviction of a year or more, effectively broadening the crimes that fall under the law.

"Now, just about every crime is a deportable offense," says Wilson Dumond, a criminal investigations supervisor at the El Paso Immigration and Naturalization Service office. The reform also opened the door to broad retroactive consideration of a resident's record, even in cases where time was already served for what was previously considered a minor, nondeportable offense. …