The US government now brings federal criminal charges against undocumented immigrants at an exponentially higher rate than it did 10 years ago, finds a Human Rights Watch report released Wednesday.
The result is a much high number of detained immigrants spending time in jail before deportation and for many, exclusion from future legalization under immigration reform legislation passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday night and slated to move to the Senate floor in early June.
"President Obama's administration has framed criminal deportees as dangerous outsiders, and the Senate immigration bill incorporates this understanding of the issue," wrote legal scholar Beth Caldwell on Al Jazeera's website last week. "But most of the so-called 'criminal aliens' who have been deported under Obama's presidency are neither dangerous nor are they outsiders."
Between 2002 and 2012, the number of people charged with felony illegal reentry increased fivefold. The number charged with misdemeanor illegal entry annually jumped fifteenfold, government data shows. At the same time, those being charged with crimes now tend to have less serious criminal histories — including 27 percent who have no prior criminal history.
Human Rights Watch argues the federal criminalization of unauthorized immigration carries a huge human and financial cost. Immigrants' rights groups and aid organizations say an increasing percentage of the border crossers they meet have already been deported at least once, often trying again and again to reunite with families back in the US. Misdemeanor charges quickly escalate to felony charges, which can mean decades in prison for repeat attempts.
"The costs include an estimated $1 billion annually in incarceration costs alone and lasting damage to the lives of migrants and their family members, tens of thousands of whom are US citizens or permanent residents," reads the report, titled "Turning Migrants into Criminals."
Federal charges were once largely reserved for those who had committed serious crimes, and it was common for US Border Patrol to simply allow immigrants they intercepted to leave via "voluntary return." Although 324,000 people did just that in 2011, with no charges filed, 1 million were allowed to do so in 2001, according to the report.
The comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate Judicial Committee on Tuesday would preclude undocumented candidates with three misdemeanors or one felony on their records from attaining legal status, potentially blocking hundreds of thousands of prior deportees from leaving their pasts behind.
Pew Research data indicates that unauthorized immigration to the US peaked in 2007 and has fallen since then primarily due to a reduction in Mexican immigrants. Meanwhile Central and South Americans have begun to attempt to cross into the US in record numbers, driven from their home countries by gang violence and economic tumult.
As the New York Times reported last month, "American arrests of illegal crossers from countries other than Mexico — mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — more than doubled along the southwest border of the United States last year, to 94,532 from 46,997 in 2011."
Many of these southern migrants fail to even reach the US/Mexico border, snared by kidnapping and trafficking rings operating in areas frequented by travelers. Others are maimed or killed in accidents and attacks, which Human Rights Watch identified as part of "a staggering increase in violence related to Mexican government efforts to combat organized crime. The widespread crime, as well as abuses committed by the Mexican security forces, have had a tremendous impact on Mexican society, including on many who have no ties to illegal activity."
Although victims of such violence may actually be eligible for asylum in the US, few actually win it. The Miami Herald reported that "of the 9,206 Mexicans who applied for asylum in fiscal year 2012, only 126 were permitted to settle in the United States."
Father Alejandro Solalinde, a Catholic priest from Mexico who has spent decades offering aid and shelter to migrants across his home country, is currently traversing the US on a "Caravan of Hope" now in Washington, DC and culminating in New York City later this month.
Solalinde and members of the caravan, organized by the International Humanitarian Coalition Pro-Immigrant (CHIP), are advocating the decriminalization of immigration in the US and a path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the country.