You recently noted that the term “illegal immigration” can be something of a misnomer:
But, actually, simply being here without proper documentation is a violation of the law punishable by civil, not criminal, penalties. Improper entry—coming into the US when you don’t have the proper authority to do so (swimming the Rio Grande, scaling the stupid wall we already have)—is a criminal offense punishable by up to 6 months in a jail and a small fine. To be found guilty of improper entry, the state has to show evidence beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt that you entered improperly—just like with other crimes. Unlawful presence is also a violation of federal law—but it’s a civil offense, not a criminal one. When Americans travel abroad and overstay their visas, we often address this with a bribe.* When visitors to the US are not presently here lawfully, we can deport them—but that doesn’t make them criminals.
This morning, Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited the US-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona to announce a new get-tough approach to immigration enforcement, directing federal prosecutors to pursue harsher charges against undocumented immigrants. “For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country,” Sessions said, “be forewarned: This is a new era. This is the Trump era.”
In his remarks, Sessions said nonviolent immigrants who enter the country illegally for a second time will no longer be charged with a misdemeanor but a felony. He also recommended that prosecutors charge “criminal aliens” with document fraud and aggravated identity theft, which carries a two-year minimum sentence. In January, President Donald Trump expanded the definition of which immigrants can be considered “criminal” to include anyone who has committed “a chargeable criminal offense,” which could include sneaking across the border.
I’ve mentioned before that immigration law falls into a weird area where crime is concerned — somebody stabbing another person is something we can all identify as a trespass, but breaking immigration law means you’ve violated standards that a quorum of legislators decided upon one time, and from which there might’ve been some serious dissent. It’s a crime in the same sense that barbering without a license might understood to be a crime: Maybe it’s not, really.
This is even weirder. Jeff Sessions has decided, apparently on his own — certainly without the input of Congress — that entering the United States is not just a crime but a felonious crime, akin in the federal system of laws to bank robbery or taking a kidnapped person across state lines. It’s a bureaucratic change — not a change in the severity of the actual offense — that will nonetheless have real consequences in the lives of real people.
This might be less objectionable if Sessions — and the president he serves — didn’t continually conflate undocumented immigration with worse, real crimes.
As he proposed stiffer penalties for nonviolent immigrants, Sessions also targeted gangs and cartels “that turn cities and suburbs into war zones, that rape and kill innocent citizens and who profit by smuggling poison and other human beings across our borders.” Invoking unusually severe language in the written version of his announcement, Sessions proclaimed, “It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this filth.”
But as Mother Jones notes: “In contrast to the dire picture Sessions painted, crime rates in American border cities have been dropping for at least five years. Even after a year of increased violent crime—which officials said had nothing to do with cartels or spillover violence—El Paso, Texas, is among the safest of its size in the nation.”
We’re going to send people to prison for the crime of believing in the promise of this country. And we’re going to do it on the basis of a lie. I hate the Trump Era.