"The skyrocketing criminal prosecutions of migrants for illegally entering or reentering the United States carry huge human and financial costs, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Imprisoning migrants with minor or no criminal records before deporting them often affects people seeking to reunite with their families in the US or fleeing persecution.
The 82-page report, “Turning Migrants Into Criminals: The Harmful Impact of US Border Prosecutions,” documents the negative impact of illegal entry and reentry prosecutions, which have increased 1,400 and 300 percent, respectively, over the past 10 years and now outnumber prosecutions for all other federal crimes. Over 80,000 people were convicted of these crimes in 2012, many in rapid-fire mass prosecutions that violate due process rights. Many are separated from their US families, and a large number end up in costly and overcrowded federal prisons, some for months or years.
The report is based on a thorough analysis of US government data and interviews with more than 180 people, including migrants and their families, lawyers, prosecutors, and judges.
The rapid growth in federal prosecutions of immigration offenses is part of a larger trend in which criminal law enforcement resources have been brought to bear on immigration enforcement, traditionally considered a civil matter. Illegal entry – entering the country without authorization – is a misdemeanor. Illegal reentry – reentering after deportation – is a felony.
Texas Magistrate Judge Felix Recio told Human Rights Watch that the US government has created a “felony class” of noncitizens: “Where there’s no criminal history, no immigration history, the criminalization of these defendants is something that’s very difficult [for me].” Defense attorneys noted that even among people with more serious records, many have very old convictions and have lived law-abiding lives for years.
Moreover, many of those who enter or reenter the US unlawfully do so for reasons completely unrelated to conventional notions of criminal activity, such as the desire to reunite with family or because they are fleeing violence and persecution abroad. US District Judge Robert Brack, who estimated he has sentenced over 11,000 people for illegal reentry, stated, “For 10 years now, I’ve been presiding over a process that destroys families every day and several times each day.”
Yet rather than evaluating whether these prosecutions are meeting their intended goals, the US government seems intent on doing more of the same. Recent data from the US Department of Justice indicates that in the first six months of fiscal year 2013, immigration prosecutions were up 10 percent." - Human Rights Watch, May 22, 2013.