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Immigrants in US Justice System: Low Numbers, High Image

As the U.S. Congress considers immigration legislation, the question of whether some illegal immigrants turn to crime once in the United States has drawn a lot of attention. Despite the publicity over the issue, producer Zulima Palacio reports that the number of illegal immigrants in U.S. jails is low.

There are about 120,000 non-citizen inmates in state, local and federal prisons in the United States. Many are simply waiting for deportation; others are there for felonies that include murder, rape, robbery and drug smuggling.

However, the statistics can be misleading if they are not placed into context, according to Allen Back who oversees correction statistics at the Justice Department.

"About 20 percent of Federal inmates are not from the United States," he said. "That is about 35,000 inmates in the federal system. About half of them are there for immigration violations, the other half for criminal violations and typically drug offenses."

Back says the available statistics do not differentiate between legal and illegal immigrants and they do not compare rates of incarceration with the general population.

"I think it is important to understand that the immigrant population is not a growing population in the criminal justice system," he said. "The growth in our nations' prison and jails is not largely attributed to the growth in the immigrant population, the non-citizen's population."

The Migration Policy Institute in Washington has completed a study about immigrants and the justice system, based on a micro sample from the 2000 National Census.

"Contrary to a lot of erroneous public perceptions, immigrants actually have the lowest rate of incarceration for criminal offenses of any population group in the country," said director Kathleen Newland.

Newland says about 3.5 percent of the U.S. population is incarcerated at any given time. As a group, African Americans have the highest incarceration rate while among immigrants; the proportion is about 1.3 percent, considerably lower than any other group.

Kathleen Newland says those most likely to be incarcerated are males with low education, usually high school dropouts. That pattern does not hold for the immigrant population.

“Some of the lowest educated immigrant groups on average like Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, have an incarceration rate of about half of one percent," she said. "They are lower even than the general immigrant population."

However, Newland notes that this changes with the children of immigrants.

"While the foreign born have very low rates of incarceration compared to the U.S.-born people, the rate rises the longer someone has been in the United States and for the second generation, that is the children of immigrants, the rates of incarceration multiplied compared to their parents, the first generation of immigrants, in some cases by five, six, seven, eight times," she said.

Some anti-immigration groups insist that many immigrants already have criminal records when they come to the United States.

"We know very little about that in statistical terms," Newland said. "If it is true, then there is a remarkable amount of reform among those who immigrate after they committed crimes in their home country because we see these very low rates of incarceration."

Experts estimate that about 12 million people are in the United States illegally. Immigration violations are part of civil law, not criminal law. Illegal immigrants may be detained prior to being deported, but that is not a criminal offense. Currently, a bill passed by the House of Representatives would criminalize illegal immigrants. If the Senate approves this version, the measure would turn those 12 million illegal immigrants into felons.