Even as the Obama administration vowed to make immigration reform a top priority, U.S. Attorneys along the border stepped up criminal charges against border crossers in the first 11 months of fiscal 2013, according to a new report by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). The vast majority of these cases were brought against immigrants for entering or re-entering the U.S. illegally.
New Mexico saw the most dramatic increase in prosecutions, up 46 percent from last year. Texas’ Southern and Western Districts have the most criminal immigration prosecutions in the nation, followed by Arizona, which actually saw a decrease in prosecutions this year. Overall, criminal prosecutions for border crossing are on pace to reach nearly 100,000 by the end of the fiscal year, a steep increase from 27,428 just five years ago.
Criminalizing migrants rather than simply deporting them back to Mexico is a relatively new phenomenon that wreaks havoc on migrants, their families, and taxpayers’ wallets. Few border crossers have any criminal record before entering the U.S. and most are trying to reunite with family members who are often U.S. citizens or legal residents. In an earlier report from Human Rights Watch, US District Judge Robert Brack of New Mexico, who has sentenced over 11,000 people for illegal reentry, remarked, “For 10 years now, I’ve been presiding over a process that destroys families every day and several times each day.”
These prosecutions also bleed taxpayer dollars. Illegal entry offenders under federal sentencing serve an average of 19 months in federal prison, costing more than $30,000 per inmate. As a result, immigration offenders make up almost one-third of the total federal prison population.
Logically, prosecutions should be decreasing, as crossings have dwindled to record lows. The U.S.-Mexico border is more secure than ever before, yet border hawks continue to call for more spending. Even the Senate’s immigration reform bill increases penalties for border crossers and devotes funding specifically for Tucson, AZ to triple the number of prosecutions to 210 per day.