Bryan Caplan  

Imprisoning Immigrants

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If you read the tables in my last post carefully, you might have noticed that 10.6% of federal inmates - over 20,000 people - are serving time for immigration offenses.  This seems very weird.  Stereotypes say that illegal immigrants are punished with deportation, not prison.  What's going on?

The answer: This stereotype is fast becoming obsolete.  Federal imprisonment for illegal immigration has exploded during the last two decades.  The numbers, via the Pew Hispanic Trends Project:

The basic facts: First-time illegal immigrants are unlikely to go to prison.  But if you're caught, deported, and caught again, you are now fairly likely to be charged with "illegal reentry."  Pew's Light, Lopez, and Gonzalez-Barrera explain:

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. By contrast, the second fastest growing type of conviction--for drug offenses--accounted for 22% of the growth.

Immigrants charged with unlawful reentry--a federal crime--have entered or attempted to enter the U.S. illegally more than once. They may also have attempted to reenter the U.S. after having been officially deported.
Changes in annual sentencing patterns take a long time to fully show up in overall incarceration numbers, so the 10.6% number is only the tip of a rising iceberg. 
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% of offenders, up from 5% in 1992. Unlawful reentry cases alone accounted for 26% of sentenced federal offenders--second only to drug offenses in 2012. This is up 13-fold since 1992, when offenders sentenced for unlawful reentry made up just 2% of sentenced offenders.
In light of these facts, I'm backing away from my earlier judgment that the difference between deportation and "voluntary returns" is almost entirely cosmetic.  I used to think that voluntary returns were about 95% as bad as deportations; now I'd say 85%.  Mea culpa.

Read the whole Pew piece here.

COMMENTS (5 to date)
Glen writes:

Richard Samuelson's recent essay (and responses) at the Library of Law & Liberty asks the question Can America Remain a Nation of Immigrants in the 21st Century?

It raises important political, cultural, historical and legal issues that are all too often brushed aside in purely economic (or utilitarian) discussions about immigration.

Christophe Biocca writes:


The very common "Larger government makes immigration worse than it used to be" argument isn't brushed aside in utilitarian discussions. It's just that that argument, to borrow a phrase, proves too much:

Immigrants no longer assimilate as easily due to the privilege-granting behaviour of modern government, and the rent-seeking it causes, and therefore we shouldn't make legal immigration easier.


Drug addicts no longer pay out of pocket for their habit because of easily available welfare and disability. Therefore the War on Drugs should continue.


The mentally deficient are no longer charity cases, as they are now cared for at taxpayer expense. Therefore we should maintain mandatory sterilization programs.


The government heavily subsidizes road construction and maintenance, allowing heavy vehicles to use them without paying in true proportion to their usage. Therefore we should maintain heavy regulation of the trucking industry.

You get the idea. If a certain entity seems to make every institution perform worse than it otherwise would be, using that as a justification for further increasing that same entity's power is a poor idea.

michael svehla writes:

It's quiet apparent that rent seeking privatized prisons have changed the law to fill up their cells and coffers.

vikingvista writes:

Kidnapping and forced incarceration for the same peaceful action that our masters at first consider kidnapping and forced relocation to be sufficient punishment?

It appears the more unforgivable "offense" is the act of disobedience--even when the masters being disobeyed are not your own.

ThomasH writes:

And notice when the sharp increase began, under Obama, something conservatives have hardly complained about.

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