Federal sentencing is on the rise, and it has little to do with guns, drugs, or sloppy Ponzi schemes. Instead, it has everything to do with undocumented immigrants crossing and settling in the United States, according to fresh figures from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC).
In its annual report for the past fiscal year, USSC announced that for the first time since 2011, federal courts issued more sentences than in the prior year. Yet while overall federal sentencing totals notched a total increase of just below 4 percent, the jump was almost entirely due to an increase from immigration cases, which comprised 34 percent of federal courts’ stack of 70,000 sentences.
Strikingly, while the trend lines for all other recorded immigration offenses stayed flat in 2018, “unauthorized entry or residence” saw a roughly 2,000-case jump from 2017 to a total of just over 18,000.
Firearm sentences also increased by over 700, but every other sentencing category either remained flat or slightly decreased.
And while drug offenses have historically held the largest shares of sentencing totals, in 2018, they comprised just 28 percent, followed by firearms at 11 percent and fraud, theft, and embezzlement at a combined 10 percent.
Yet amid the changes, racial and ethnic disproportionality stubbornly clung to federal sentencing in 2018. Just over half the sentences were given to Hispanics, and one-fifth to blacks and whites alike.
Federal courts issued the vast majority—a staggering 82 percent—of immigration-related sentences for unauthorized entry or residence in the United States. Less than 1 percent of immigration-related cases went to trial, settled instead through plea bargains. Those convicted for immigration-related offenses served an average of eleven months behind bars with a median of six months.
Other immigration-related offenses included: smuggling, transporting, or harboring undocumented immigrants; trafficking real or falsified documents, perjury, and marriage fraud for the purpose of gaining residence; and obtaining or using such documents.
Meanwhile, a staggering 43 percent of all sentences were handed down to non-U.S.-citizens.
Of all people sentenced for immigration-related offenses, 91 percent were not U.S. citizens, 96 percent were Hispanic, and 92 percent were male.
Additionally, 80 percent had not completed high school and 94 percent had not been to college.
Ripple Effects of White House Policy
Taken collectively, these reference points offer considerable insight into the potential ripple effects of the Trump administration’s hardline immigration agenda for federal sentencing.
For one, it remains true that the more traditional subset of undocumented immigrants is absorbing the brunt of total immigration-related offenses. Their sentences could even be a major contributor to the net increase in federal sentencing.
Many immigration experts view family migration as having largely blended into, perhaps even surpassed, the border crossings of single, working-class Latino men. This dramatic shift in migratory patterns has apparently not yet led to broader demographic distributions of immigration-related sentences.
That could in part be because the roughly 22,000 immigration-related cases closed in 2018 pale in comparison to annual recorded amounts of border crossers since Trump took office, according to data presented by Vox.
This could be due to the increase of asylum claims by family units, both at and between ports of entry. Asylum claims are applications for legal permanent residence that are either rejected or accepted, but do not lead to a ‘sentence’ outcome that could be captured by the USSC data set.
These points would also imply that the USSC data set is not necessarily an adequate window into broader migration flows. Instead, it offers insights into the types of offenses against which immigration enforcers are bringing successful cases.
While the report’s conclusions leave much room for further inquiry, the uptick in sentencing totals certainly finds a cogent interpretive framework amid the Trump administration’s aggressive rightward overtures to make the U.S. immigration system more restrictive and nationalistic.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission is a clearinghouse for federal sentencing data that analyzes crime and sentencing trends, produces research and guidelines for federal court practices, and offers training to attorneys, public defenders, judges, and probation officers in the federal criminal justice community.
Its 2018 annual report and sourcebook can be accessed online.
Roman Gressier is a TCR contributor and news intern.