This is one of a few points we’ll make in an analysis WOLA will publish early next week, probably Tuesday. I want to break it down here in greater detail. It just seems so crazy.
It’s easiest to look at it step by step. First, this is the current U.S. federal prison population (source):
People who commit immigration offenses end up incarcerated in the federal prison system. The green stripe represents the 12,115 currently incarcerated for immigration offenses (source):
If held for less than 90 days, those guilty of immigration offenses, especially that of improperly crossing the border, usually end up in facilities run by U.S. Marshals, not federal prisons. In 2014, the last year for which data are available, 81,881 people were detained this way. Let’s use that number here (source):
Now, here is the number of people whom Border Patrol caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border improperly in 2017. All 303,916 of them technically committed a misdemeanor, punishable by fines or imprisonment, by violating Section 1325 of Title 8, U.S. Code. They crossed the border without passing through one of the 45 official crossings, or ports of entry. 303,916, by the way, is the lowest number since 1971 (source):
Some of these apprehended migrants were children, who would not be charged with a misdemeanor. 41,435 were kids who arrived unaccompanied. 75,622 members of family units (parents with children) were also apprehended. From those categories, let’s say 80,000-plus were kids. That would leave approximately 220,000 adults who could have been charged with a misdemeanor:
Of those 220,000 or so, 18,642 actually were charged in the federal criminal system. They’re already counted on the left, so take them off of the right (source):
If you’re still reading this far: the point of all this is that the Trump administration is proposing to move the entire right column to the left column. Attorney-General Jeff Sessions on May 7:
[T]he Department of Homeland Security is now referring 100 percent of illegal Southwest Border crossings to the Department of Justice for prosecution. And the Department of Justice will take up those cases.
I have put in place a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal entry on our Southwest border. If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple.
The Trump administration intends to do this even to adults seeking asylum or humanitarian protection. If parents cross the border anywhere other than the ports of entry, whatever the circumstance, Homeland Security will take their children away and treat them as unaccompanied minors, sent to live with guardians while the parents go to court and probably prison.
Sessions said it: “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.” ICE Director Thomas Homan added, “Every law enforcement agency in this country separates parents from children when they’re arrested for a crime.”
If these officials’ agencies do what they say they’re going to do, they could increase the federal prison and U.S. Marshals detention population by 75 percent, or more if migration exceeds 2017 levels.
This is what the chart looks like when you move the uncharged adult border-crossers from the right column onto the left (with the old left column added to the right for comparison):
A 75 percent one-year increase in the federal prisoner population would break the system. It would also cost billions: in 2017, it cost $99.45 per day to incarcerate someone in federal prison and $89.33 per day in U.S. Marshals facilities. And that doesn’t count all the new facilities that would have to be built, and the people who would have to be hired (or, let’s be real: subcontracted) to deal with the big jump in population.
At WOLA we’ll have more on this early next week. We’ll point out that the Trump Justice and Homeland Security departments’ “zero tolerance” approach would not only break the federal prisons. It would also break land ports of entry and federal courts. Oh yes, and it’s also unspeakably cruel to protection-seeking families and children.