Form I-90, Application to Replace Permanent Resident Card

Prison Population

A new report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has confirmed some rather unsurprising suspicions—that the majority of foreign prisoners in the U.S. are from Mexico. Of the 55,000 foreign nationals currently imprisoned in U.S. detention facilities, approximately 38,500 of them are Mexican nationals. Of those imprisoned Mexican nationals, 65 percent of them are serving time for illegal immigration offences, with the second most common offence being drug related crimes. The report shows that foreign nationals make up 25 percent of the total prison population in America and that in federal prisons; the number of foreigner in U.S. prisons has risen 7 percent since 2005. However, more surprisingly, the number of foreigners in local and state prisons has risen 35 percent during the same time period.

Advocates of comprehensive immigration reform and those hoping to see restrictions lifted for illegal immigrants or otherwise disappointed with the current state of U.S. immigration law may have cause for concern with the release of this report as lawmakers may use the data to push for further immigration restrictions and find in the report justifications for even more increases in border security. The GAO report estimates that the U.S. prison system spends $1.6 billion a year on illegal immigrants. However, the cost per illegal immigrant prisoner varies state to state. In Texas for example, each inmate costs the state about $12,000 per year. In California, each inmate costs the state around $36,000 per year which, according to Tim Donnelly, a member of the California State Assembly, costs the fiscally strapped state a total of $885 million a year. A federal program, the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program does partially reimburse states for the cost of imprisoning illegal aliens.

U.S. prisons are strained and the economy is floundering. Illegal immigration is already a hotly-contested debate and when costs in the billions regarding illegal immigrants are released to the public, negative sentiments simmering just below the surface may be in danger of boiling over. Donnelly blames inaction on the part of the federal government, saying, “The federal government is not doing its job of deporting these criminals to their countries of origin.” Donnelly has suggested a possible exchange program with Mexico that would send imprisoned Mexican nationals to prisons in their home country in exchange for U.S. nationals in Mexican prisons. There are significantly less U.S. nationals in Mexican prisons than there are Mexican nationals in U.S. prisons and Donnelly sees this as killing two birds with one stone—getting illegal immigrants out of the country and freeing up space in overcrowded U.S. prisons.

Advocates of immigration reform think that many imprisoned illegal aliens are treated unfairly and are quick to point out that the rise in the foreign prison population correlates with the fact that there has been an 85 percent increase in illegal immigrant arrests since 2005. They argue that illegal immigrants are imprisoned or deported for minor infractions. Jennifer Allen, a spokesperson for Borderaction, an immigrant advocacy group, has said, “Some (illegal immigrants) are detained simply because of a traffic misdemeanor.”