Criminal prosecutions of migrants for illegally
entering the United States have skyrocketed, according to a report
Wednesday by non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch.
The report comes as the US Senate considers an immigration reform measure that supporters say would enact the toughest border enforcement measures in US history.
Human Rights Watch said the increase in criminal prosecutions of migrants for illegally entering the country carries huge human and financial costs.
Illegal entry prosecutions have increased 1,400 per cent over the last 10 years, and re-entry prosecutions are up 300 per cent in the period, according to the global human rights group.
"The US government is turning migrants into criminals by prosecuting many who could just be deported," said Grace Meng, author of the report. "Many of these migrants aren't threats to public safety, but people trying to be with their families."
The study is based on US government data and interviews with more than 180 people, including migrants and their families, lawyers, prosecutors and judges.
"Over 80,000 people were convicted of these crimes in 2012, many in rapid-fire mass prosecutions that violate due-process rights," the organization said.
Many are separated from family members already in the US, and a large number end up in overcrowded federal prisons, Human Rights Watch said.
Immigration enforcement has typically been considered a civil matter, but there is a trend shifting it to the federal criminal System. The US government says the prosecutions are necessary to keep dangerous criminals from entering the United States and to deter illegal immigration.
Human Rights Watch says many of those targeted for prosecution have criminal histories for only minor offenses or no criminal histories at all.
The Senate immigration reform legislation calls for an additional 250 million dollars for prosecutions of these cases in Tucson, Arizona, and would increase the maximum penalties for many categories of people charged with illegal entry and re-entry, according to Human Rights Watch.
Illegal entry is defined as entering the country without authorization. It is a misdemeanour under the federal criminal code. Illegal re-entry - re-entering the US after deportation - is a felony.
The immigration reform bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday evening by a vote of 13-5 and is awaiting debate in the full chamber.
The reform is supported by a bipartisan group of influential senators known as the Gang of Eight. Despite an onslaught of amendments and efforts to derail it, the measure passed with few significant changes and now will be scheduled for a vote of the full Senate.
The legislation includes increased border security, a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the US and reforms to streamline the legal immigration process. If it becomes law, it would be the first major immigration law in nearly three decades.
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