By Victoria Frayre*
Newly released statistics by the U.S. Sentencing Commission reveal that almost half of all people sentenced for federal felony crimes are Latino. Why is this so? Although most Latino federal offenders are being imprisoned for immigration offenses (about 48% in 2007) does it really make sense to throw illegal immigrants in prison? With prisons already busting at the seams it is absolutely mind-boggling to me why anyone would think that adding to the overwhelming prison population is a good idea. Ironically, this is exactly what is happening.
According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, there were nearly 2.3 million inmates in state prisons, federal prisons or local jails. Only about 200,000 of those are held in federal prisons, of which, 31% are Latino. While advocates for stricter immigration policies claim that illegal immigrants are violent, drug-smuggling, people-smuggling criminals, numerous studies have found that immigrants are less likely than native-born citizens to commit crimes that could potentially send them to prison.
A study conducted by the American Immigration Council found that immigrants are 5 times less likely than native-born citizens to be in prison. Moreover, even though the number of undocumented immigrants to the U.S. had risen to around 12 million from 1994 to 2005, the violent crime rate and property crime rates have declined significantly.
Think about it. Why do immigrants come to the United States in the first place? Hmmm…Well, most come to pursue better economic and educational opportunities for themselves and their families that they would otherwise not have in their country of birth. Why then would immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, go about breaking the law jeopardizing their chance to succeed?
Yes, I understand that residing in a country without proper authorization, or beyond the legal time limit, is a crime, but until the United States decides to stop taking the easy route by throwing every illegal immigrant in jail, rather than giving people who are trying to better their circumstances a legal route into a country of opportunity, the vast numbers of immigrants who are risking their lives on a daily basis for a chance at prosperity will continue to do anything possible for the simple chance.
The number of immigrants flooding into the United States will not cease anytime soon. Immigration hawks must realize that by creating stricter immigration laws that make it harder for people to migrate in and out of the country, they are creating an opportunity for people smugglers and black markets to take advantage of a vulnerable population willing to do anything to escape such dire circumstances in their place of birth. It will ultimately be up to the countries that appeal most to immigrants to change the negative stereotypes of immigrants. Patterns of migration and immigration can be seen in a positive light rather than a hostile one.
*Victoria Frayre is serving this summer as a Friends of Justice intern and will soon graduate from Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas with a degree in applied sociology.