Growth in federal convictions due primarily to unlawful reentry cases

A surge in the number of people sentenced in federal courts over the past two decades is due in large part to more undocumented immigrants…
Growth in federal convictions due primarily to unlawful reentry cases

This file photo, taken on Aug. 15, 2010, shows the U.S.-Mexico border wall in Hereford, Ariz. A new study by the Pew Research Center shows more people have been convicted of unlawful reentry into the U.S. over the past two decades. (AP Photo/Matt York)

A surge in the number of people sentenced in federal courts over the past two decades is due in large part to more undocumented immigrants being convicted of unlawful reentry into the United States, a new study finds.

A report released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center shows the number of unlawful reentry convictions stood at 690 cases in 1992. That number jumped to 19,463 cases in 2012.

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“The increase in unlawful reentry convictions alone accounts for nearly half (48%) of the growth in the total number of offenders sentenced in federal courts over the period,” the authors of the report wrote.

Meanwhile, drug offenses accounted for 22 percent of the growth from 1992 to 2012, making it the fastest growing type of conviction. Overall, the number of offenders sentenced in federal court more than doubled between 1992 and 2012, going from 36,564 cases to 75,867.

U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehend most of those charged with unlawful reentry.

U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehend most of those charged with unlawful reentry. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Those who are charged with unlawful reentry have entered or tried to enter the U.S. illegally more than once. Some may also have tried to reenter the U.S. after having been deported. Most people who were charged with unlawful reentry are detained by U.S. Border Patrol at the border.

Many undocumented immigrants convicted in federal courts of unlawful reentry are  processed under a federal program called “Operation Streamline.” The program is currently being operated in five Border Patrol Southwest sectors. It allows up to 40 unauthorized immigrants facing unlawful reentry charges to be prosecuted at the same time.

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On average, people who are sentenced for unlawful reentry in federal courts spend two years in prison.

Supporters of tough immigration laws agree that unlawful reentry into the U.S. should be considered a federal crime so that it discourages people from entering the U.S. illegally.

But immigrant rights advocates, like Tania Unzueta of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, disagree. She said many of those who are charged with unlawful reentry haven’t committed serious crimes. Instead, she said many of them are people who are trying to reunite with their loved ones in the U.S.

“People who are coming back to the only home they’ve known or the place they’ve settled with their family are treated as priorities for removal simply because they’ve had their families and their lives divided,” she said.

Other major findings:

Other major findings of the Pew report:

  • The rising number of convictions for unlawful reentry has altered the offense composition of federal offenders. In 2012, immigration offenses—of which unlawful reentry is the largest category—represented 30 percent of offenders, up from 5 percent in 1992.
  • Hispanics accounted for 48 percent of sentenced federal offenders in 2012, the single largest racial/ethnic group represented.
  • Among unauthorized immigrants sentenced in federal courts in 2012, 68 percent were convicted of “unlawfully entering or remaining in the United States,” 19 percent were sentenced for drug offenses, 7 percent were sentenced for other immigration related offenses and the remainder (6 percent) were sentenced for other crimes.

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