A recently released report provides another startling indicator of how Latino demographics are being used to lead the United States into a new age, the Age of Crimmigration. Produced by the Pew Hispanic Center, the report found that Latinos are now the largest single ethnic group in the federal prison system.
Fueled, in large part, by changes to immigration law that have multiplied exponentially the ways in which undocumented immigrants can be prosecuted and jailed as criminals, the new Latino federal prison majority documented in the report provides definitive proof of the “crimmigration” thesis developed by legal scholars like Juliet Stumpf of the Lewis and Clark Law School in Oregon. Stumpf’s groundbreaking paper, “The Crimmigration Crisis: Immigrants, Crime, & Sovereign Power,” predicted how a lethal combination of forces-changes to immigration laws, political shifts, intensified prosecution and enforcement – would lead to what she called, in 2006, “the most important development in immigration law today: the convergence of immigration and criminal law.” On a less legalistic level,the news of the new Latino federal prison majority also means the convergence of hundreds of thousands of the poor white, black and Latino families in terms of their dealings with a prison system fed increasingly with immigrant bodies. Nearly half of all Latino offenders were convicted of immigration-related crimes, crimes that only became crimes as a result of relatively new sentencing laws and policies.
Although normalized over the course of several years by a confluence of separate but symbiotic interests – opportunistic politicians (Republican and Democrat), nationalistic and race-baiting media personalities, multi-billion dollar security and prison-industrial interests, “immigrant rights advocates” (and the major foundations that fund and legitimate them) promoting “smart” & “tough” immigration policies in exchange for legalization for 12 million undocumented-the immigrant=criminal axiom is, in legal terms, a relatively recent historical development. And it will likely worsen without major mobilizations from below.
As the new Latino federal prison majority overtakes the sizeable populations of whites and African Americans in federal facilities, it should be noted that the criminalization of immigrants and immigration policy described by the crimmigration thesis comes as an extension of previous legal and other institutional practices. For example, the exponential increase in laws facilitating the mass incarceration of mostly Latino migrants appears to follow the same pattern and logic that led to the exponential increase in the disproportionate drug sentencing laws and policies that led to the mass incarceration of African and other, mostly poor Americans. Without radical intervention from below or a definitive change of heart from above- or both, immigration laws will join drug laws as the drivers of the prison system in the Obama era.
Latinos already account for 40 percent of those convicted of federal crimes, a percentage that has doubled from 1991 to 2007 (see chart below). And, according to this report in the New York Times, “Of Latino federal offenders, 72 percent are not United States citizens and most were sentenced in courts from one of the four states that border Mexico.” (contd. below chart)
(from NY Times)
Because crimmigration combines two political third rails -criminal justice and immigrant rights-, legal reform, enforcement and prosecution and detention issues in immigration policy have been and may continue to be largely ignored by elected officials and other policy influentials. That candidate and now President Obama and his allies have remained largely silent on the crisis of incarceration and criminal justice in black and Latino communities does not bode well for the “hope” that the Obama administration will be willing to take on powerful lobbies of the fast growing immigration prison-industrial complex: aerospace, surveillance and prison-building industries like Halliburton and Boeing, prison guard unions (whose fasest-growing group are Latino prison guards), and super predatory private prison management firms like GEO. Soon, we will likely see increasing numbers of immigrants themselves joining the ranks of those profiting from mass imprisonment of immigrants.
But, if there’s an opportunity to be found (and there always is) in the cloudy complexities of crimmigration policy it is the realization that the silver lining is actually and truly black and brown. Growing Latino majorities in the already overcrowded federal penitentiary system are nothing if not an unprecedented opportunity to create a visionary, mass-based movement of blacks and Latinos and others committed to ending the disgrace that makes us the largest carcereal country on earth. Rather than operate piecemeal and in separate silohs, criminal justice and immigrant detention activists can together lead a powerful movement the likes of which this country has never seen. Crimmigration represents as much a historic opportunity as it does a great danger in times of economic and political crisis.