Number of Hispanics in jails swells to record numbers as immigration crackdown continues

May 15, 2009

Hispanics fill federal prisons
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Thursday, February 19, 2009

Nearly half were convicted of immigration offenses, a new study finds.

FORT WORTH — Efrain Chavez-Castillo shuffled before a federal judge Wednesday morning, each step clinking and held short by leg irons.

He wore an orange prisoner’s uniform. A translator leaned in close to tell him what was being said. Federal agents waited off to the side of the courtroom to take him back to a holding cell.

The 51-year-old Mexican man was being arraigned for illegal re-entry into the United States after deportation.

Federal courts have seen a huge increase in cases like this, and many more Hispanics are ending up in prison because of it, according to a new study by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Forty percent of all federal offenders sentenced in 2007 were Hispanic, according to the study from the Washington, D.C.-based organization. That figure was only 24 percent in 1991.

Of the Hispanics sentenced, nearly three-quarters were not U.S. citizens and nearly half were convicted of immigration offenses. Three-fourths of Hispanic immigration offenders were sentenced for illegal entry or for being in the U.S. illegally.

Chavez-Castillo, who appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Bleil in a downtown Fort Worth courtroom, is being prosecuted because he returned to the U.S. after being deported in 2004 for selling drugs to a minor.

His attorney, assistant federal public defender William Hermesmeyer, would not comment on the case other than to say he has many like it.

“I probably have more immigrant cases than any other type of case,” said Hermesmeyer, who has worked out of the Fort Worth public defender’s office for four years.

The Pew study found that the number of Hispanics sentenced in federal courts nearly quadrupled from 1991 to 2007.

Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, cited several reasons for the spike. They include Congress toughening immigration laws in 1996, stricter enforcement of those laws in the last two years, and the fact that an estimated 12 million immigrants are in the U.S. illegally.

“There’s been more severity applied to those who are unlawfully entering the country,” Lopez said. “The sentencing guidelines have become more severe for those who are sentenced for immigration crimes.”

Hermesmeyer said immigrants convicted of illegal re-entry after deportation can be sent to prison for two, 10 or even 20 years depending on their criminal history.

Other findings of the study:

Ninety-six percent of Hispanics convicted in federal court received a prison sentence. By comparison, 82 percent of convicted non-Hispanics were sentenced to prison.

Of the Hispanic convicts who were not citizens, 61 percent were sentenced for immigration offenses, 30 percent for drug charges and 9 percent for all other offenses.

Sentenced Latinos who were not citizens received shorter sentences, 40 months on average, than Hispanic U.S. citizens, who were sentenced to 61 months on average.