It is no surprise to regular readers of crimmigration.com that prosecutions for immigration crimes occupy the time and attention of prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges in federal courts nationwide. Even among those of us who follow these developments, what is often overlooked is the reality of confinement that goes along with criminal cases. Pre-trial detention, of course, is a standard feature of criminal prosecutions in the United States.
Immigration crimes are no exception. In recent years, the U.S. Marshals Service, the entity responsible for holding onto everyone charged with any federal crime, has reported that it books into custody more immigration crime defendants than defendants facing prosecution for any other type of federal offense. What has been missing from this story is a historical lens through which to understand just how unusual today’s immigration imprisonment practice really is. The data graphed below begins to expand my own historical contextualization—and hopefully yours too.
While researching a forthcoming article, Abolishing Immigration Imprisonment, I found a helpful compilation of U.S. Marshals Service booking data for a seventeen-year period stretching from 1994 to 2011. Combined with USMS data I previously blogged about (see here), I have graphed the number of people booked into the custody of the USMS where the most serious criminal charge they faced was an immigration offense.
The historical jump is astounding. There is an 893% change from 1994, the first year reported, to 2012. From the start of President George W. Bush’s second term in 2005 through 2012 there was a 124% increase. And while there has been no comparable increase during President Obama’s tenure, the numbers have remained steady since he took office in 2009 hovering near 85,000. The same can’t be said for President Obama’s Democratic predecessor. Under President Bill Clinton, there was a 189% increase in the number of people booked into the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service on suspicion of having engaged in an immigration crime (note: because these data begin in 1994, I excluded President Clinton’s first year in office, 1993, from this calculation).
One other trend that I find interesting concerns the impact of the September 11, 2001 attacks. It is often said that the events of that day radically transformed immigration law enforcement in the United States. While there is a great deal of truth to that, these data suggest that federal criminal policing of immigration law did not suddenly become harsher in that day’s aftermath. On the contrary, from 2000 to 2003 there was an increase of a mere 8.5%. This is significant, to be sure, but I wouldn’t characterize this as a radical departure from previous practice. Instead, these data show that federal law enforcement officials began to become more involved in immigration law policing in the 1990s and the post-2001 bump didn’t come until 2004.
[Note: After originally publishing this article, Carl Takei at the ACLU kindly passed along data from 2013. I have updated the graph accordingly.]