The number of people sentenced in federal court has doubled over the past two decades and there’s largely one reason: soaring convictions for immigration crimes.
A single felony charge — unlawful reentry — accounted for nearly half of the total growth in federal convictions from 1992 to 2012, according to a report released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center. The charge involves entering or attempting to enter the U.S. illegally on more than one occasion.
The dramatic rise in sentences for immigration crimes can be attributed to several factors, but the biggest reason is increased enforcement over the past decade.
Prior to 2005, Border Patrol was more likely to allow an unauthorized immigrant caught at the border to agree to a “voluntary departure.” That person’s action would not be criminalized.
But the agency adopted a more aggressive approach that year, gradually phasing out the voluntary returns. Instead, unauthorized immigrants, most of them Hispanic, were cycled into the criminal justice system.
Border Patrol increasingly charged repeat crossers with unlawful entry or subjected them to what’s known as “expedited removal,” being quickly sent out of the country without appearing before a judge.
One particular program in the Southwest, called Operation Streamline, has turned immigration convictions into a factory-style version of justice. One immigration judge in Tucson, Arizona, has given defendants as little as 25 seconds to hear the charges, enter a plea and receive a sentence, The New York Times reported last month.
The intense focus on immigration enforcement has also helped change the demographic makeup of those sentenced for federal crimes.
Latinos made up 23 percent of those sentenced for a federal crime in 1992, according to Pew. Twenty years later, that figure had risen to 48 percent.
The average sentence for unlawful entry lasted two years, and nearly all those sentenced received time in prison.
President Obama recently announced that his administration would examine ways to “more humanely” enforce the nation’s immigration laws. Meanwhile, he’s executed more than 1.8 million deportations during his presidency, and may have surpassed the 2 million mark already, if rates have remained close to those in 2013.
However, deportations have increasingly occurred along the border in recent years. Approximately two-thirds of people removed in the 2013 fiscal year were classified by federal immigration authorities as recent border crossers.
A statement from the White House after a meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus last week said that during the meeting, Obama “emphasized his deep concern about the pain too many families feel from the separation that comes from our broken immigration system.”
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.