March 6, 2009


Increase in Latino federal prison population reveals flaws in immigration policy

By Justin Akers Chacon

Our immigration laws are out of whack. And they are clogging our federal prisons with nonviolent folks who are guilty of nothing more than living, working and raising families here without proper documentation.

A Pew Hispanic Center study released in mid-February documents how Latinos now make up 40 percent of the estimated 200,000 prisoners in federal penitentiaries, triple their share of the total U.S. adult population and disproportionate to their representation in state and local jails (19 percent and 16 percent, respectively).

Nearly half of the Latino population in federal prisons are immigrants, with 81 percent sentenced for entering or residing in the nation without authorization.

We are now incarcerating tens of thousands of immigrants without criminal records or fugitive status. They don’t pose a threat to the community, and they shouldn’t be behind bars.

But they are languishing there because of a policy shift by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is increasingly targeting immigrants.

According to its Web site, ICE “protects national security and upholds public safety by targeting criminal networks and terrorist organizations that seek to exploit vulnerabilities in our immigration system, in our financial networks, along our border, at federal facilities and elsewhere in order to do harm to the United States.”

But there is no evidence that the vast majority of these immigrant prisoners have any intention whatsoever of doing harm to the United States.

They want to make a living.

They want to be with their families.

They want their children to have a better life than they themselves have had.

Our immigration service foolishly changed its policy to place these nonviolent immigrants on the same level as hardened criminals back in 2006. The agency eliminated a clause stating that three-quarters of those apprehended had to be criminals, allowing for non-fugitive “ordinary status violators” to be factored into their count.

Another counterproductive policy was “Operation Streamline,” which began in January 2008, with agents arresting and charging every person caught trying to cross the border. Before this, most Mexican nationals caught at the border were fingerprinted and returned to Mexico without criminal charges. According to the Washington Post, the number of criminal immigration cases filed by U.S. prosecutors nearly doubled in the first month of the program, accounting for “the majority of new Justice Department prosecutions nationwide in February — about 7,250 out of 13,500 — outnumbering all white-collar, civil rights, environmental and other criminal cases combined.”

Immigration officials also began mandatory jail sentences for immigrants using false working documents, a standard practice in the vast underground labor market. They are being prosecuted under the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act of 2004, which was intended to break up organized theft rings and credit card scam artists.

According to a Syracuse University study, criminal prosecutions for immigration violations overall have ballooned as the federal government goes after undocumented migrant workers. The total of 11,454 immigration prosecutions in September 2008 alone represents an increase of more than 700 percent from September 2001, the study says.

This astronomical increase shows that our immigration policies have not only degenerated from their original intent, but are now spinning out of control and wrecking countless lives in the process.

Now, more than ever, a new legalization bill is needed to resolve the immigration issue, so that law enforcement can concentrate on more pressing issues.

Justin Akers Chacon is a professor of U.S. History and Chicano Studies in San Diego. He can be reached at

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