Report Shows Federal Justice System Is All About Immigration
July 20, 2012

SAN DIEGO -- The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics just released a 44-page report on “Immigration Offenders in the Federal Justice System, 2010.”

If you follow immigration enforcement stats and trends closely, there may not be anything particularly new here. But it’s a nice compilation demonstrating several trends that have been taking place over the past decade or so.

What I found most interesting is data showing how over the last decade or so, prosecution of immigration crimes has become an increasingly greater proportion of the federal justice system’s workload. Here are some details from the report:

• Nearly half (46 percent) of all criminal suspects arrested and booked into the federal justice system were immigration offenders in 2010. In 2000, it was 22 percent.

• The share of immigration offenders in federal prison increased from 19 percent in 2000 to 29 percent in 2010. So as of two years ago, at least, three in 10 federal prisoners were being held for immigration violations.

• Immigration cases made up 44 percent of all cases referred to US. attorneys’ offices by federal law enforcement agencies in 2010, compared to 13 percent in 2000.

• Immigration offenses jumped from 18 percent of all convictions in U.S. district court in 2000 to 30 percent in 2010.

Why the big increase? For one thing, it reflects the priorities of the last two administrations to get tough on enforcing immigration law, prosecuting and sending more violators to jail.

Throughout the 1990s, the vast majority of unauthorized immigrants caught in the country were offered “voluntary return,” which allowed them the possibility of reentering the country legally in the future.

But that started to change a decade ago, with an increasing number of unauthorized immigrants being formally removed from the country. This carries legal consequences if that person later tries to come back to the U.S.

In 2010, 45 percent of undocumented immigrants were formally removed from the country.

Some questions I have after seeing this data: How much money is the federal justice system spending on prosecuting immigration violations? How much are prisons spending? Does the increased focus on immigration cases mean justice workers are spending less time investigating and prosecuting other crimes?

Here’s more from the report about the immigration offenders:

• About two-thirds of individuals arrested in 2010 for a federal immigration violation were charged with a misdemeanor for illegal entry. These individuals were sentenced to jail for up to three months.

• More than half (57 percent) of immigration offenders charged in U.S. district court in 2010 had a prior felony conviction. Twenty-one percent of these had a prior felony drug conviction and 17 percent had a prior felony violent conviction.

That’s a total of 38 percent. So what kind of prior felonies had the other 62 percent been convicted of? That data isn’t included in the report, unfortunately, and it’s the kind of information some colleagues and I have been trying to get our hands on for a while.

It’s possible that the majority of the prior felonies are also immigration related (reentry into the U.S. after you’ve been deported once is a felony).

At the same time, the Southwest border region has seen a huge increase in workload as a result of increased immigration enforcement. From the report:

“The total caseload of federal judges, as measured by felony filings per judge, reflected a growing gap between the five Southwest border districts (California Southern, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas Western, and Texas Southern) and the rest of the U.S. for all offenses filed from 1995 to 2010.”

In Southwest border districts, felony filings per judge increased 211 percent (from 166 to 517) between 1995 and 2010. In the rest of the country, felony caseload per judge increased just 24 percent (from 72 to 89).

That means judges in our region now handle nearly six times more felony cases than their colleagues in other parts of the country.

Federal judges in Western Texas had the biggest felony caseload in 2010 (688 filings) followed by New Mexico (531), Southern Texas (485), Arizona (475) and Southern California (425).

But our judges are faster, according to the report. In 2010, judges in the Southwest border districts took on average four months to process cases, compared to nine months in the rest of the country. And judges in our region have sped up in recent years while judges in other parts of the country have, on average, gotten slower, according to the report.

Some other interesting tidbits:

• You’re much more likely to be detained up until your trial in U.S. district court if you’re accused of committing an immigration offense (45 percent of defendants in 2010) than if you’re accused of committing a violent crime (4 percent of defendants) or weapons offense (10 percent of defendants). Thirty-two percent of defendants accused of drug violations are held in detention before trial.

• Eighty-one percent of immigration offenders who were convicted and sentenced in 2010 received a prison sentence.

• The median prison term imposed on immigration offenders decreased from 24 months in 2002 to 15 months in 2010.

• The vast majority of convictions of immigration offenders resulted from a guilty plea. (Ninety-seven percent of all immigration defendants pled guilty in 2010).

There’s a lot more in the report, including a whole slew of data tables that you can play around with. Let us know if you find anything interesting!