handcuffsWhile the Obama administration claims that its immigration-enforcement efforts are focused on the apprehension of dangerous criminals and terrorists, federal statistics indicate that a great deal of time, effort, and money are devoted to locking up and deporting immigrants who aren’t a threat to anyone. In fact, a large number of deportees have only committed immigration violations. This is apparent from the findings of a new report from the Pew Research Center, which examines data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission to show how immigration cases are flooding federal courtrooms. More precisely, the report looks at the rising number of cases that involve charges of reentering the United States after having been previously removed—which is a felony punishable by up to two years in prison.

According to Pew, the number of unlawful reentry convictions in federal courts grew 28-fold between 1992 and 2012, from 690 cases to 19,463. Moreover, the “increase in unlawful reentry convictions alone accounts for nearly half (48 percent) of the growth in the total number of offenders sentenced in federal courts” over that period. As more and more of these cases make their way into federal court, the composition of the people being sentenced in federal court has changed dramatically. Between 1992 and 2012:

  • The share of federal sentenced offenders who were Latino grew from 23 percent to 48 percent.
  • The share of federal sentenced offenders who were non-U.S. citizens increased from 22 percent to 46 percent.
  • The share of federal sentenced offenders who were unauthorized immigrants grew from 12 percent to 40 percent.

As the Pew report notes, this rapid transformation has been fueled in large part by a policy decision made in 2005 to offer the option of “voluntary return” to fewer and fewer Mexicans apprehended while crossing the border without authorization. Instead of returning them to Mexico without any formal criminal or deportation order issued against them, as was the case in the past, federal authorities would now deport them with a misdemeanor conviction of “unauthorized entry” on their records. Were they ever caught crossing the border again, they would be charged with felony reentry.

This change in policy has been enacted in no small measure through “Operation Streamline,” a program through which unauthorized border crossers are prosecuted in mass trials. According to Pew, Streamline “alone has accounted for nearly half (45 percent) of all federal immigration-related prosecutions in Southwest border districts between 2005 and 2012.” Streamline has been implemented in Del Rio, Rio Grande Valley, and Laredo, Texas; and Yuma and Tucson, Arizona.

The Pew report’s dissection of the surging immigration caseload in federal courts sheds light on one aspect of a much larger problem: the degree to which federal immigration-enforcement policy is geared towards the apprehension, detention, and deportation of non-violent individuals who threaten neither public safety nor national security. The reality is that many of these people actually have strong ties to the United States and simply are trying to reunite with families in the United States. That the government is so aggressively prosecuting unauthorized border-crossers who have no other crimes demonstrates how the immigration enforcement apparatus is set up to snare the wrong people. There’s a double standard of justice in the United States, and the harshest treatment is frequently reserved for immigrants.

Photo by Keith Allison.

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