This week the Pew Hispanic Center released a new report, Hispanics and Federal Crime. It describes the alarming state of affairs in terms of how Latinos now lead in numbers in the federal penal system throughout the US. It does not address with any granularity the status of Latinos at the local level, except to suggest that along the US-Mexican border area Latinos seem to be in more trouble and violating laws. Hence, the convictions are higher for Latinos in the Southwest border region. The legal basis is unclear for all of the Latinos in jail. They appear to have an immigration related violation according to the report. This will require more extensive sociological study, documentation and interviews by experts in the field.
My observation is: this sort of distressing report can only help to solidify an increasing perception that the Latinos who make up well over 65% of the undocumented or illegal foreign population in the US are a class of scofflaws. This is most disturbing. The report additionally becomes somewhat confusing when it suggests and states that a good number have been incarcerated for violating immigration law. The convictions broke down largely along citizenship lines. Among sentenced non-citizen Latino immigration offenders, more than eight-in-ten (81%) were convicted of entering unlawfully or residing in the U.S. without authorization. In contrast, more than nine-in-ten (91%) U.S. citizen Latino immigration offenders were convicted of smuggling, transporting or harboring an unlawful alien. Hispanics who were convicted of any federal offense were more likely than non-Hispanics to be sentenced to prison. If the Homeland Security Department has decreed that every illegal entering the US will be not only detained but convicted of a felony to serve time, this is truly an abuse of immigration law.
Ted Alden, former London Financial Times correspondent in Washington, recently wrote a book, The Closing of the American Border. Alden concludes in his book that after 9/11, the Justice Department developed the Patriot Act to control and monitor the American public. This Act appears to have added to the body of law in dealing with subversion or sedition. In terms of dealing with foreigners or non-US citizens or non-US residents, the existing immigration legal framework was instrumental to protect the US from any terrorist or similar threats. Hence, the draconian process in the application of issuing visas (no longer just trying to prevent economic refugees from entering the US, but real threats like terrorists), arduous port of entry immigration inspections, closer customs monitoring of cargo containers, advanced passenger inventory lists for aircraft scheduled to fly to the US and the Passenger Name Registration on aircraft in flight to the US. The publication of ‘no-fly lists’ (contain the names of suspected or known terrorists) created increased vigilance. But if you had the misfortune to have the same name as someone on the list or near the same name as crossed checked with the Advance Passenger and Passenger name lists, you are automatically denied access to the aircraft. These lists can further complicate travel into the US. This has made it imperative for governments to improve travel documentation such as internationally agreeing to include digital photos, special paper, digital fingerprints or iris scan or voice recognition chips.
It should be noted that out of over six billion people on the planet, over two billion have no real authentic documentation. That means that no birth certificates, baptismal notices, drivers licenses, passports or national ID cards are held by these individuals. Alden basically describes how immigration law became the preferred instrument to prevent, root out or capture any suspected terrorist or threat, but the importance of this determination to use the anti-terrorist cry to go after any undesirable quickly became apparent. Obtaining legal entry into the US is a monumental effort for most foreigners, subjected to high cost of visa applications, then comes the almost insulting if not contemptuous ordeal by the interviewing official at the US consulates. And then if you get the visa, there is no guarantee that the port of entry inspector will agree to allow one to enter the US. Ultimately, these Homeland Security immigration inspectors have the final word.
It is interesting to note that about 40% or more of the so-called illegals in the US come in legally with a visa or permission of sorts. The other 55% came in illegally. In practical terms, the stereotypical image of the undocumented is someone in tatters jumping a fence, swimming a river, or hiding in the floor board of a vehicle. It would be interesting for the Pew researchers to distinguish those Latinos in jail as to how many entered illegally or entered legally and overstayed their visas and became illegal. I would guess that the poor, downtrodden illegal who paid a coyote to enter the US is the one being incarcerated. The better clothed and educated ‘overstayers’ probably do not see this treatment as often.
Portraying the Latino population as a horde of lawless undesirables is most misleading if in fact this draconian application of immigration law is yielding this result. MALDEF, along with the Pew Hispanic Center, should seek a foundation grant to thoroughly address this situation. Of course, many historians will readily point out that on the eve of the Civil War in 1860, the prison population was approximately 80% Irish. It appears as one wanders through US social history that in the 1700s, the prison population was small and mostly Scots-Irish. Small because most jurisdictions had no resources to build and house prisoners. Hence, stealing a horse or twice convicted of a crime could result in a rope around your neck and publicly executed. In the 1800s, the Irish were the scofflaws, and in the 1900s the African-Americans became the leading presence in the federal prisons and local jails. Now it appears that the Latino community will soon be seen as the new avant-guard in populating prison facilities, and this may be another indication of the underclass the Latino community is about to become. It certainly is not the case yet and should not be, but reports like these are alarming and distressing, but should be managed in a way that gives us solutions to the problem and points the way forward. Again, this Pew Report is most disconcerting. Its findings are certainly of great concern. The overall conclusion is that Latinos tend to be the most numerous group violating immigration law. That is not only illegal entry but includes aiding and abetting illegal entry. This serves to re-enforce negative stereotypes. Our community needs to attend this situation to disabuse the notion that we are all not law abiding.