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The Stories Behind the Statistics: Mass Criminalization of Immigrants Seeking Family Reunification

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A new Pew Research study, “The Rise of Federal Immigration Crimes,” demonstrates that our nation increasingly treats immigration violations as worthy of heavy-handed criminal enforcement actions.  The decision to prioritize prosecutions of immigrants who return to the U.S. to live with their families—a trend that was begun by the Administration of George W. Bush but continued unabated by the Administration of Barack Obama, means that ordinary immigrants who should be on the road to citizenship under immigration reform are instead being prosecuted as felons, locked up in federal prisons and ripped away from their families instead.

The Pew Research study finds:

Dramatic growth over the past two decades in the number of offenders sentenced in federal courts has been driven primarily by enforcement of a particular immigration offense—unlawful reentry into the United States—according to an analysis of data from the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) by the Pew Research Center.  Between 1992 and 2012, the number of offenders sentenced in federal courts more than doubled, rising from 36,564 cases to 75,867.  At the same time, the number of unlawful reentry convictions increased 28-fold, from 690 cases in 1992 to 19,463 in 2012.  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 stories behind the statistics in the Pew Research report include too many like Jose Alfredo Ramos Gallegos, a 24-year Ohio resident and father of two U.S. citizens whom the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is trying to put in the “criminal alien” column.  Last month, local police in Mentor, OH stopped a car in which Alfredo was a passenger, took him away in handcuffs in front of his daughter, and referred him to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol – which placed Alfredo in detention at the Erie Prison in Erie, PA, where he remains.  Alfredo has lived in the U.S. for 24 years, since the age of 16.  His “crime?”  After being deported, Alfredo re-entered the United States to be with his U.S. Citizen wife, who was nine months pregnant with their first child at the time and urging him to return.  Throughout his 24 years in this country, Alfredo has always lived peacefully, taking care of his family, and with no arrests or other problems.

Despite limited department resources, U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton intends to prosecute Alfredo for illegal re-entry and then refer him to DHS for deportation.  A Federal Grand Jury returned an indictment against Alfredo, and he’s set to make his first criminal court appearance tomorrow in Erie where over one-hundred supporters are expected to hold a rally.  Alfredo’s story is far from unique, unfortunately.  See here for a collection of similar stories.

The rise of the mass criminalization outlined in the Pew Research study has taken place under both Democratic and Republican administrations.  As Miriam Jordan of the Wall Street Journal describes, “For decades, people apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol after trying to enter the U.S. illegally were released in Mexico or ordered to appear in immigration court for civil proceedings.  The Bush administration initiated a policy that made illegal re-entry a crime punishable with prison time…The policy, known as Operation Streamline, has continued during the Obama administration.”

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

While Congress dithers and refuses to act on legislation and the Obama Administration nears its 2 millionth deportation, too many immigrant families like Alfredo’s are separated.  Mass criminalization has to stop.  It is a moral and policy failing with both parties’ fingerprints on it.

For the Party that supposedly cherishes family values, House Republicans are complicit in these family separations by blocking a permanent legislative fix.  For the party that supposedly champions immigration reform and the immigrant community, President Obama and Democrats should have understood the problems with trying to enforce their way to credibility and compromise on immigration.  Just as both parties have a role in creating this devastation, both parties have a moral duty and opportunity to fix the problem and rein in the excesses we see across the country, day after day.