Justice isn’t blind for Hispanic immigrants to the U.S.
A study by two Penn State University professors found that Hispanic non-citizens—including both green card holders and undocumented—received on average heavier sentences from federal courts in districts that became major new destinations for Latinx immigration after 2000.
“Our findings uncover a previously unknown facet of how Hispanic immigration destinations matter in the legal reception and treatment of Hispanic people who are not U.S. citizens,” wrote Jeffrey T. Ulmer and Brandy R. Parker of the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Penn State.
The study in Justice Quarterly, a publication of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, examined U.S. Sentencing Commission data from 90 federal districts, as well as county-level statistics from the U.S. Census and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, between 1990 and 2000 and between 2000 and 2010.
Comparing sentencing decision for convictions major convictions (with the exception of immigration offenses), the researchers found sharp differences between districts where there had been a post-2000 influx of Latino immigration and so-called “traditional” areas.
They suggested the differences were explained by fears and prejudices towards unfamiliar new arrivals, fanned by political rhetoric that inaccurately linked Latinx immigration to high rates of crime.
Although the data they collected is now nearly 10 years old, authors said it indicated the often-overlooked impact of local prejudice and stereotypes on the part of judges and prosecutors who otherwise expected to be “color-blind.”
“Social contexts matter for the punishment decisions of federal court communities, even in the face of institutional forces that would seek to promote uniformity between courts nationwide,” according to the authors.
Significantly, the data used in the study predates the sharp upsurge in anti-immigrant rhetoric since the 2016 election of President Donald Trump.
Starting in 2000, growing numbers of Hispanic immigrants began bypassing traditional destinations such as California, Texas and Florida in favor of new and “emerging” destinations in the Southeast, Midwest and Northeast.
Comparing sentencing outcomes between federal districts in traditional destinations after the 1990s, the authors found little difference between Hispanic and non-Hispanic defendants, suggesting these regions had become acclimatized to the newcomers.
In contrast, the increase in the Hispanic population in areas that had experienced low levels of immigration before 2000 coincided with “heightened public perception of threat and support for harsher punishment of Hispanics,” the authors wrote.
“Federal judges and prosecutors may (therefore) rely more on threatening and fearful stereotypes about Hispanics in terms of focal concerns of sentencing when they have less real-world experience with Hispanic defendants, or even community members.”
The authors found that the sharpest disparities in the 2000-2010 time period occurred in cases where defendants charged with offenses such as drug trafficking and violence were undocumented.
“Notably, the Hispanic non-citizen effects appear to be driven by undocumented Hispanics…even while controlling for district Hispanic poverty rate, immigration caseloads and overall index crime rates,” the study said.
The full study is available here.