Criminalization of Immigrants


United States

Borders Citizenship Discrimination & Inequity Families & Relationships Violence

The rising influence of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) under the Trump Administration led to a sharp increase in the criminalization of immigrants.

With the 2005 Implementation of Operation Streamline, a joint-initiative of DHS and DOJ, immigration violations moved from civil infractions to criminal offenses. Those caught crossing the U.S-Mexico border without authorization faced felony imprisonment ranging from 6 months to 20 years. Facing deportation, defendants under Operation Streamline are given inadequate legal consultation and denied their due process rights, with as many as 80 people simultaneously tried and judges issuing verdicts in a matter of seconds.

While criminal prosecutions continued under the Obama Administration, officials prioritized prosecuting immigrants with criminal records compared to those without. However, under the Trump Administration criminal proceedings against immigrants with no or low-level criminal histories saw a sharp rise. As head of the DOJ, Attorney General Jeff Sessions enacted stringent criminal penalties targeting immigrants. In 2017, the Houston area, which accounts for one of the highest Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrest rates, saw a 174% increase in arrests of immigrants without criminal records compared to a 6% decrease of those with criminal records.

In 2018, the Trump administration announced it would execute a “zero-tolerance” policy and prosecute every person crossing the border without authorization, and separating children in order to incarcerate their parents during legal proceedings. In an aggressive immigration “deterrent” tactic, over 2,300 children, some only months old, were taken from their parents. Mass protests ensued as well as condemnation from the United Nations. Federal judges blocked the practice for violating existing U.S. law, and the children were ordered to be immediately reunified. The administration struggled to find their parents, many of whom were already deported.

Such practices, as well as escalating political rhetoric, have contributed to the false narrative of immigrants as dangerous criminals, despite statistical evidence that proves otherwise. It also contributes to racial profiling by police leading to a disproportionate percentage of Latinos in prisons. Furthermore, people who are deported are barred from future legal entry into the country, denying them opportunities for family reunification. Civil and religious organizations and members of the judiciary have called upon Congress to implement more humane and sustainable immigration policies in accordance with the Constitution and U.S obligation under international refugee law.