Immigration crime has become a common feature of federal court dockets across the United States. I previously wrote that in fiscal year 2016 there were 68,314 defendants prosecuted for federal immigration crimes (see similar accounts of 2012 and 2010). Approximately 10,000 fewer defendants had their cases disposed of in the 2017 fiscal year, which might explain a small drop in immigration-related imprisonment, but the overall trend as similar. In the fiscal year that began under President Obama and ended under President Trump, there were more defendants prosecuted for immigration crimes before federal district court and magistrate judges than any other offense category.
Statistics compiled by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts report that 58,053 defendants faced an immigration crime charge in FY 2017. Most of the immigration crime charges were for illegal entry, a misdemeanor, or illegal reentry, a felony. Almost all of the 20,902 immigration crime defendants appearing before a federal district judge faced an illegal reentry charge (16,690 for illegal reentry compared to 683 for illegal entry). All but 491 of these defendants were convicted and almost everyone (20,337) was convicted through a guilty plea. By contrast, the data reported for magistrate judge adjudications specify types of crimes rather than specific offenses. Nonetheless, because illegal entry is classified as a type of petty offense, presumably most of the 37,151 immigration crime defendants appearing before magistrate judges that year faced an illegal entry charge. No comparable conviction data was included in the government report.
Immigration crime defendants represent a substantial percentage of the cases completed in FY 2017 in the federal district and magistrate courts. The 58,053 immigration crime defendants whose cases were completed in FY 2017 constitute 39.82 percent of the 145,792 total defendants in the federal district and magistrate courts. Within the magistrate courts, the 37,151 immigration cases comprised 52.6 percent of the 70,629 cases that magistrates disposed of that year. In the district courts, the 20,902 immigration crime cases comprised 27.8 percent of the 75,163 cases disposed of that year. The next most heavily prosecuted type of crime in the district courts, drug offenses, came in at 22,987.
Most reports about immigration crime prosecutions in federal courts focus on district courts. It’s misleading to do so at the expense of the magistrate courts because the magistrates oversee an enormous docket of prosecutions for minor offenses. A first-time conviction for illegal entry carries up to six months imprisonment. That is certainly minor as federal prison sentences go, but it is nothing to dismiss. Further, regardless of the sentence, a conviction for illegal entry carries the near-certainty of removal from the United States and the near-impossibility of returning lawfully. The same is true of illegal reentry convictions.
Following immigration crime conviction rates is separately important because this tends to be a major reason people are removed from the United States. In 2015 and 2016, for example, more convicted immigration crime offenders were removed than people who had been convicted of any other type of crime (see a similar report of 2013 data).