Immigration crime is neither unusual nor new. Federal law threatens imprisonment for a host of migration activity. Impersonating a United States citizen can lead to three years behind bars. Smuggling people into the country is too, and if anyone dies in the process it can even result in execution.
Far less newsworthy, entering the country without the correct permission is also criminalized. Since 1929, federal law has prohibited entering the United States without the government’s authorization. Doing that once can result in six months imprisonment. Entering the United States without authorization after having previously been deported raises the stakes: up to two years imprisonment for a first-time offender. Illegal entry and illegal reentry, as these crimes are called, are the overwhelming majority of immigration crimes leading to imprisonment. Data I obtained through a FOIA request reveals that this has been so since at least 2000.
Every year from 2000 to 2016, the Bureau of Prisons, the agency responsible for the entire federal prison system, has locked up at least 1,000 people convicted of illegal entry and no fewer than 7,000 people convicted of illegal reentry. Usually the numbers have been far higher. In 2011, at the height of President Obama’s tenure, there were 22,695 people in federal custody because of an illegal entry or illegal reentry conviction.
Combined, these individuals constitute nine out of ten immigration prisoners. The cumulative percent column in the chart above represents the total fraction of all confined immigration prisoners.
Other immigration crimes lead to few people behind bars. Smuggling gets a lot of news coverage and politicians trot it out to justify all manner of heavy-handed policing strategies, but it’s not a big fraction of the immigration prisoner population. From 2000 to 2016, there were never more than 2,434 people in BOP custody because of a smuggling conviction.
In no year did smuggling offenders represent more than 11.77 percent of federal immigration offenders, as was true in 2016.
All data are a one-month snapshot taken in September of the given year. Clearly that leaves room for natural variation. But by capturing the immigration offender prison population on the same month each year across a sixteen-year period, these statistics give us a fairly clear view into how immigration crime affects imprisonment.
Immigration offenders represent a small fragment of the federal prison population—usually about eleven percent, as I wrote previously. Just as importantly, most of the people locked up for an immigration crime did nothing more than come to the United States without governmental permission.