Criminal prosecutions of immigrants who entered or reentered the country illegally have soared in the last decade,bringing with them huge financial and human costs, according to a report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch.
The U.S. government has claimed that these prosecutions are necessary to keep dangerous criminals out of the country, yet while 42 percent of those convicted in 2002 had committed crimes considered "most serious" by the United States, in 2011 that number had dropped to 27 percent. Additionally, another 27 percent had no prior felony convictions at all in 2011 vs 17 percent in 2002. In the first six months of fiscal year 2013 alone, immigration prosecutions were up by 10 percent, according to recent data from the U.S. Department Of Justice.
“The U.S. government is turning migrants into criminals by prosecuting many who could just be deported,” said Grace Meng, U.S. researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report.
Illegal entry into the United States is a misdemeanor; reentry after deportation is a felony. Yet the prosecutory measures to dissuade illegal immigration don’t usually fulfill their purpose since many of those entering are doing so to reunite with their family.
“For 10 years now, I’ve been presiding over a process that destroys families every day and several times each day,” U.S. District Judge Robert Brack said in the Wednesday report.
These prosecutions lead to undocumented immigrants spending an average of 19 months in jail, exerting more pressure on an already strained federal prison system. Thirty percent of the U.S.' imprisoned population are immigration offenders, who cost taxpayers an average of $31,286 a year per inmate, according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice, based on data from 2010.
“If the Obama administration and Congress are serious about reforming immigration to protect families, they should give all people who have been deported and separated from their families a chance to prove they can contribute to society,” Meng said. “Otherwise, the government is doomed to continue spending millions prosecuting and incarcerating people with strong ties to the U.S.”
Human Rights Watch suggests the government impose only civil penalties on those entering the country illegally and set a clear path for those deported to apply to reenter legally.
Immigration reform has been a main concern for the U.S. government during President Obama’s second term in office. On Tuesday the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the “gang of eight” immigration bill, after discussing nearly 200 amendments since the bill was introduced on April 16. The bill will now go to the Senate floor.