From outsider to criminal

By Michelle Chen Feb 18, 2009

The Pew Hispanic Center has released a report detailing an intense growth in the number of Latinos sentenced in the federal court system. Contrasting sharply with historical trends, the growing Latino presence among sentenced offenders is both predictable and unnerving in a climate of increasing criminalization of immigrants. According to Pew:

“Between 1991 and 2007, enforcement of federal immigration laws became a growing priority in response to undocumented immigration. By 2007, immigration offenses represented nearly one-quarter (24%) of all federal convictions, up from just 7% in 1991. Among those sentenced for immigration offenses in 2007, 80% were Hispanic…. "among all federal offenders sentenced to prison, Hispanics received shorter prison terms on average than did either blacks or whites. These racial and ethnic disparities in sentencing appear to be linked to USSC guidelines that attach clear boundaries for the types of sentences that can be meted out for different types of crimes."

Additionally, non-citizens made up more than 70 percent of Latino federal offenders in 2007, up from about 60 percent in 1991. Overall, the study found:

"Much of the increase in the number of Hispanics sentenced in federal courts has come from a rise in the number of offenders sentenced for immigration offenses between 1991 and 2007…. "More than eight-in-ten (81%) non-citizen Hispanic immigration offenders in 2007 were sentenced for entering the U.S. unlawfully or residing in the country without authorization. In contrast, fully 91% of Latino immigration offenders who were U.S. citizens were sentenced for smuggling, transporting or harboring an unlawful alien."

The Washington Post’s analysis of a federal raid in Maryland illustrates how authorities have rolled out the ICE dragnet to sweep in undocumented immigrants indiscriminately–a pattern revealed in other recent reports:

“According to the investigation’s summary, deportation officer Sean C. Ervin said Alderman told him that headquarters in Washington was ‘unhappy with Baltimore’s results.’ He then ‘instructed [Ervin] to go out and get more aliens, that he as an experienced officer knew where potential illegal aliens tended to gather, and gave examples such as Home Depot or Lowe’s parking lots.’ “Ervin told investigators that he sought out his immediate superior, Raymond R. Smith, ‘to tell him that he was uncomfortable with [the] orders.’ Smith told investigators that when he tried to intercede, Alderman "related that he didn’t really care where they had to go and whether the aliens were fugitives or not, he just wanted them to bring more bodies in."

The New York Times notes that while federal immigration prosecutions have soared over the past five years, "other categories of federal prosecutions, including gun trafficking, public corruption, organized crime and white-collar crime, have declined over the same period.” As the law enforcement system continues to treat civil immigration offenses as a criminal issue, we’re now seeing the fallout in myriad forms: swelling prison populations, vast numbers of people quietly deported, and perhaps most troubling, a shift in our public safety resources toward the targeting those whose main offense seems to be simply, in the eyes of the law, not belonging.