Federal Legislation Requiring Prison Time for Low-Level Immigration Offenses is Bad Policy

A polarized Congress seems unlikely to come to grips with the nation’s immigration issues in a comprehensive way any time soon, even as states like Alabama, Arizona and Georgia enact their own, unconstitutional laws to punish undocumented immigrants. Meanwhile, though, there is one federal enforcement proposal being floated that will do far more harm than good – by requiring prison time for virtually all immigration offenses.  

The “Criminal Code Modernization and Simplification Act of 2011,” or H.R. 1823, ties the hands of judges by removing the option of fines as punishment, including fines for first-time, low-level immigration offenses. It also removes a graduated sentencing structure for immigration offenses. Under the legislation, introduced by U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a first-time offense would be punished the same as a third-time offense.

This bill is a harsh, reactionary piece of legislation that will only overcrowd prisons and drive up costs for taxpayers as they foot the bill for incarcerating people who don’t belong in prison. It does nothing to address our nation’s immigration problems. 

For example, under H.R. 1823, a first-time offender could face a 15-year jail sentence for misrepresenting his date of birth on a passport application. The judge would not have the option of fining a first-time offender. Similarly, someone who does not apply in a “timely” manner for travel documents before leaving the United States – such as a re-entry permit for a refugee – could spend four years in federal prison, or 10 years if he previously failed to notify immigration authorities of a change of address. 

The SPLC is encouraged by Sensenbrenner’s recent statements indicating he will revise his proposal but opposes the bill in its current form.