Federal courts and prisons are being overwhelmed by the broken U.S. immigration system. That is one of the central points to emerge from data contained in a new report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. It is also a point that is easily missed if you are looking at the wrong numbers. For instance, the numbers of Latinos and non-U.S. citizens who are sent to federal prison are startling. But even more startling is how many of them are going to federal prison because of non-violent immigration offenses. In defiance of common sense, they may be in federal prison even though they have not committed a violent crime or even a property crime. Their only crime might be entering the country without permission.
According to the report, Latinos (both native-born and foreign-born) accounted for half (50 percent) of all individuals sent to federal prison during the first nine months of Fiscal Year 2011. Of these 28,468 Latinos, 16,964 (or 60 percent) were sentenced for immigration violations. Non-U.S. citizens (of any ethnicity or race) accounted for just under half (48 percent) of people sent to federal prison. Of these 28,648 non-citizens, 20,303 (or 71 percent) were sentenced for immigration violations. Overall, immigration offenses accounted for one third (35 percent) of all sentences handed down.
As the report describes, a wide range of immigration offenses are lumped together in these numbers: “trafficking in U.S. passports; trafficking in entry documents; failure to surrender naturalization certificate; fraudulently acquiring U.S. passports; smuggling, etc.; unlawful alien; fraudulently acquiring entry documents; and unlawfully entering U.S.” Data from other sources suggest that most of these immigration cases involve unauthorized presence in the United States and nothing more. Statistics compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University reveal that immigration offenses now account for the majority of federal prosecutions, and that illegal entry and illegal reentry account for the majority of immigration offenses.
In short, both our immigration system and our criminal justice system are in dire need of reform. The Bush and Obama administrations have chosen to prosecute more and more unauthorized immigrants for “unlawful entry” rather than deporting them, which means that they end up in federal prison along with murderers and drug traffickers. This is pointless and inhumane. Unauthorized immigration will not be stopped by further criminalizing unauthorized immigrants. It will be stopped when we have flexible limits on legal immigration, and when we deal honestly with the fact that the 11 million unauthorized immigrants already living in the United States are not going away.