Liberal immigration reformers and immigrant-rights activists generally avoid talking about “criminal aliens.”
Criminal alien is what the Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Homeland Security (DHS) call a noncitizen – whether a legal or illegal immigrant – who has been convicted of a crime. Unlike immigration restrictionists, immigrant advocates stay clear of links between immigrants and crime, and instead stress that immigrants seeking legal status are law-abiding workers and community members.
There is broad public sentiment that criminal aliens should be removed from the country – reflected in the Obama administration’s repeated declarations that criminal aliens are the focus of its immigration enforcement operations. Immigrant advocates (and the media) focus on the plight of noncriminal aliens, such as DHS detention conditions – while the plight of immigrants incarcerated by the DOJ in the prisons of the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Prisons gets much less scrutiny. As might be expected, the reform proposals that include legalization measures specifically exclude immigrants with criminal records.
Immigration and crime are topics that are increasingly linked. Anti-immigrant and anti-immigration activists – who insist that immigrants who cross illegally into the country are criminals – are mainly responsible for this immigrant-criminal linkage. By prosecuting illegal entry as a federal crime punishable by federal imprisonment (rather than as a civil violation, as was previously the practice), DHS has given the immigration backlash community more ammunition in their campaign to label illegal immigrants as common criminals.
But the fact is that many noncitizens – hundreds of thousands of them – are indeed common criminals, apart from any new categorization of immigration law violations crime by DHS through such programs as Operation Streamline.
The criminal alien issue is a central challenge of immigration reform. It’s an issue that also goes to the heart of the problems with criminal justice system and our practice of mass incarceration.
Immigrants as Inmates
On any given day there are some 33,000 immigrants living in forced confinement behind two or three lines of high perimeter fencing of razor wire. Last year DHS’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency channeled 392,000 into these detention centers before they were deported.
DHS says that it removed 195,000 criminal aliens from the country last year – that’s up 52% from the first year of the Obama administration and up 70% from the last year of the Bush administration.
The dozens of ICE detention centers – most of which are operated by private prison firms – constitute, charge immigrant advocates, a hidden archipelago of immigrant prisons.
But on any given day there are many more noncitizens – all categorized as criminal aliens -- incarcerated in a network of USMS and BOP prisons than in the DHS detention centers. What is more, there are nearly 300,000 illegal immigrants in state and local jails.
The numbers of immigrants in prison are alarmingly high, raising questions about the high costs of this mass imprisonment and about the true extent of immigrant-criminal connection.
About 25% of those inmates in USMS custody are immigrants held for immigration violations. USMS bookings for immigration violations increased from 10,181 in 1995 to 88,189 in 2010. About 17,000 immigrants are in USMS jails for immigration violations on any given day. These numbers don’t include noncitizens being held for non-immigration crimes.
In BOP prisons there are some 55,000 immigrants – or 25-27% of the total prison population in recent years. That is about double the federal incarceration rate for citizens. Approximately 23,000 of these noncitizens are incarcerated in twelve special prisons for low security criminal aliens (sentenced for illegal entry and drug violations) that are operated by private prison companies.
Then there are the hundreds of thousands immigrants found in state and local jails. As part of its Criminal Alien Program and especially the new Secure Communities program, ICE is seeking to integrate local and state law enforcement into federal immigration enforcement through data and communications systems that alert the agency when an immigrant is booked and jailed.
There is no data on number of immigrants jailed at the state and local levels. But the federal government, through the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP), a DOJ program that partially reimburses state and local governments for the costs of jailing illegal immigrants, does not that at least 296,000 illegal immigrants were in local and state jails in 2010. Under SCAAP, localities and states aren’t reimbursed for the costs of jailing legal immigrants, making it more difficult to estimate the number of legal immigrants who have entered local and state jails or corresponding criminal justice systems.
Prosecutions of immigrants for immigration violations are overwhelming federal courts and driving the increased need for USMS and BOP prison beds.
More than one third of all criminal prosecutions in federal courts are for immigration violations. Immigration prosecutions constitute 36% of all federal prosecutions – surpassing drug and fraud prosecutions. These immigration prosecutions are distinct from cases handled administratively by DOJ and DHS in immigration courts.
Closely linked to the increased federal prosecutions of immigration violations is the geographical concentration of federal criminal cases. In 2010, 41% of all federal criminal cases were handled by five judicial districts in the Southwest.
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