The quiet crackdown on illegal border re-entry

It is a well-known fact that the U.S. makes up 5 percent of the world’s population, and even while considered the leader of freedom and democracy, it has 25 percent of the world’s total prison population. Within that 25 percent are immigrants who are imprisoned for attempting to re-enter the country after being deported.

Even as the number of individuals attempting illegal re-entry has steadily declined, surprisingly, the sentences for illegal re-entry have increased by more than 70 percent according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC). Only 26 percent of all types of federal cases reported to the USSC were illegal re-entry cases. These cases contribute to the $39 billion taxpayers spend on prisons each year — prisons that are increasingly operated by private companies.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent looks along a section of the recently constructed fence at the U.S.-Mexico border.

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A U.S. Border Patrol agent looks along a section of the recently constructed fence at the U.S.-Mexico border.

When it comes to reforming the criminal-justice system, including lowering sentences and ending private prisons, immigrants are becoming casualties of the policy negotiation. While it is widely agreed, by both conservatives and progressives alike, that the criminal-justice system needs reform, with one goal being to reduce prison populations, the USSC is recommending increasing sentences served by immigrants convicted of illegal re-entry, an offense that is non-violent in nature. It is difficult to make sense of the USSC’s action, particularly when we consider all the data in favor of reducing prison populations. The state of Texas alone would save $3 billion under proposed reforms.

It is worth discussing who makes up the USSC and how new guidelines are proposed and confirmed. The USSC is a seven-person independent agency that sets sentencing guidelines for federal crimes. The seven members of the commission are appointed by the president and serve six year terms. These seven incredibly powerful people provide ranges for how long someone should spend in prison for committing a federal crime. They are provided with the most recent and readily available data and analysis in order to independently change guidelines, without congressional approval. Yet, in this case, where the data would seem to contradict their decision, shouldn’t the data they are relying on be made public?

Not surprisingly, a University of Arizona study found that when it comes to re-entry, prison time does not deter a person from attempting to cross again. If the motivating factor is to provide food and economic stability for the individual and their family, this should not surprise anyone. The proposed increase in prison sentences for immigrants come with massive costs to taxpayers and are based on speculation, not on factual data. Not only are the proposed changes costly, but these changes pose a real threat to reforming the entire criminal justice system. How can we reform a system that excludes from consideration a large segment of the population it affects? Further criminalizing immigrants is in direct opposition to reforming the system.

The vast majority of people trying to re-enter the country (67 percent) have family in the United States, according to the USSC. Even more startling is that of those individuals trying to re-enter the country who do not have family in their native country, 98 percent have family in the U.S. Furthermore, the average age of first entry for those trying to re-enter the country is 17 years-old, meaning these border-crossers have spent their formative years making a life in the United States. The notion that these individuals are crossing the border to get on welfare is inconsistent with the findings of the USSC, which found that 75 percent of border-crossers had worked for at least one year prior to being deported.

The lack of media coverage and silence among politicians and presidential candidates on the proposed changes by the USSC are alarming, and frankly, disappointing since it is relevant to two hotly debated issues this year — immigration and criminal justice. These changes will lead to persons with no previous criminal records seeing their average guideline minimum sentence increase from 1 to 6 months. These changes will lead to more overcrowding in sub-par private prisons and, most certainly, increased the burden on taxpayers.

As the conversation around decreasing federal sentences for non-violent drug offenders gains momentum, one has to wonder whether such a change by the USSC could be in response to help keep private prisons afloat. If this were true, it would finally manifest the moral dangers of allowing private industry into our nation’s criminal-justice system. In which case, private industry must be removed at all cost.

The ACLU, KIND and the Women’s Refugee Commission, among others, have already spoken out against these changes. We cannot sit idly by while actions that harm all of us are taken. The USSC’s proposed changes must be rejected.
Commentary by Julissa Arce, the author of the forthcoming book, “My (Underground) American Dream” (Sept. 13, 2016). Arce made national and international headlines when she revealed that she had achieved the American Dream of wealth and status working her way up to vice president at Goldman Sachs by age 27 while being an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. Follow her on Twitter @julissaarce.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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