Federal Prisons Swell With Latinos Convicted In Mass Immigration Hearings

Today, the U.S. Sentencing Commission released statistics which show that Latinos now comprise nearly half of all people sentenced for federal felony crimes. Immigration hawks have been trying to argue for years that immigrants (particularly from Latin America) commit violent crimes at a higher rate than U.S. citizens. That claim has largely been debunked and it turns out that it’s the immigration policies that hardliners advocate for that have put so many Latinos behind bars. The Associated Press reports:

Expedited court hearings along the border are a major force driving a seismic demographic shift in who is being sent to federal prison. Statistics released this week revealed that Hispanics now comprise nearly half of all people sentenced for federal felony crimes, a number swollen by immigration offenses. In comparison, Hispanics last year made up 16 percent of the total U.S. population.

Sentences for felony immigration crimes, which include illegal crossing as well as other crimes such as alien smuggling, accounted for about 87 percent of the increase in the number of Hispanics sent to prison over the past decade, according to an analysis of U.S. Sentencing Commission data.

These figures echo the findings of a 2009 report by the Pew Hispanic Center which pointed out that in 1991, three times as many Latinos were sentenced in federal courts for drug crimes (60 percent) as for immigration crimes (20 percent). Yet, this all changed in 2007 when the pattern “reversed” and 48 percent were sentenced for an immigration offense and 37 percent for a drug offense.

The reason for this massive shift is an increase in expedited en masse hearings at the border which “speed” undocumented immigrants “through accelerated legal proceedings, where most guilty pleas come in Spanish and thousands of Mexican citizens end up locked up each year for entering the country without papers.” Critics — who include the late Judge John Roll — say that the process violates constitutional rights, overburdens the court system, and distract from the prosecution of major crimes.

The bloated immigration court system has created a bureaucratic mess. “When you take so many things …. inadequate resources, hostile judges, overly aggressive government lawyers, laws that don’t make sense, an immigration bar that generally is not the caliber of civil litigators, language barriers, poor translation,” explained a former immigration government lawyer, “you’ve got a system with so many broken parts, it’s a wonder it functions at all.” Some people say it doesn’t. The American Bar Association has proclaimed that “our immigration system is in crisis, overburdened and under-resourced.”

Meanwhile, Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and John McCain (R-AZ) have introduced a bill that would expand the program in Arizona courts and potentially in other regions located on the Southwest border. “Everybody knows where the bulk of the illegal immigrants are coming from, and if you’re going to deal with the deterrent effect of putting some of those people who cross in prison for a while…then naturally you’re going to have a majority of those people be Hispanic,” Kyl said in defense of his position. “Let’s just stop illegal immigration and we won’t have that problem.”