Immigration under the Trump Administration

Meghan Arbegast | Photo courtesy
Part of the presentation compared President Trump’s immigration policies with Obama’s policies.

Assistant professor talked about criminal immigration prosecutions

Dr. Ethan Boldt, an assistant professor of criminal justice and political sciences, talked about immigration policies under the Trump administration on March 5.

Boldt started out by explaining why he thinks immigration is an interesting topic when talking about President Trump’s administration.

“I think for me there’s just a genuine curiosity to understand, or try and understand, what is going on with U.S. immigration policy right now,” Boldt said.

Though there are a lot of news stories covering the topic of immigration, Boldt said, “It’s a very confusing and complicated area of the law.”

Boldt’s entire presentation focused on criminal immigration prosecutions which Boldt said, “…is not necessarily very intuitive because it is a narrow, but important piece of our immigration enforcement overall.”

Since a lot has changed in immigration policies from former President Obama to Trump, Boldt proposed three research questions with the first asking, “To what extent has (Trump’s positions on immigration) lead to changes in enforcement practices by federal prosecutors and law enforcement officials in the United States?”

To address his first question, Boldt defined what criminal immigration prosecutions are since many think of deportations when they hear this term.

“Unlawful presence in the United States is, itself, legally speaking, not a crime,” Boldt said.

He went on to describe how many people stay in the U.S. after their visas expire saying, “There is no criminal statute to prosecute those people.”

Boldt explained the “confusing lingo” as he called it describing criminal alien, a term used frequently by Trump. “Criminal alien we can define as an alien who is lawfully or unlawfully present in the United States who has committed a crime,” Boldt said.

“When we think about terms like ‘illegal immigrant’ or ‘undocumented immigrant’ or whatever you might refer to them as, neither of those are legal terms and neither of those describe the issue of criminal immigration prosecution,” Boldt added.

“Criminal immigration prosecution is an important centerpiece of federal law enforcement activity today and it involves prosecution under specific provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act,” Boldt said adding, “Things like improper entry and reentry.”

“Although it’s not a crime to be unlawfully present in the United States, you can be criminally prosecuted for illegally entering the United States,” Boldt said.

Aiding, hiring and bringing in unlawfully documented individuals along with document fraud (including visa and passport falsification) can lead to someone being prosecuted for criminal immigration prosecution.

“Instead of going before the administrative removal process, you are charged by a complaint or indictment, you’re brought before a judge who is going to decide a criminal sanction,” Boldt said.

“The number one crime that’s prosecuted in the United States currently under federal law, are immigration crimes,” Boldt said. “They overshadow narcotics, white-collar crimes, things we would typically associate with federal law enforcement.”

Boldt elaborated that the government chooses to carry out criminal immigration prosecutions because they want to be tough on immigration and they also want to facilitate for speedy removal from the United States.

Jeff Sessions, the former Attorney General of the United States, wrote two memos that Boldt mentioned. The first in 2017 showed that Sessions thought it was a high priority for the Department of Justice to make sure the cases are prosecuted.

In 2018, Sessions issued a second memo that talked about the zero-tolerance policy which stated that anyone who is a first-time unlawful entrant would receive criminal prosecution. The new zero-tolerance approach also leads to child-family separation as Boldt explained.

“When you shepherd somebody through the administrative removal process, a civil process, the child can be kept with the family. But when you send somebody to jail for a criminal violation, that child can no longer be with them,” Boldt said.

Boldt then compared Trump’s use of criminal immigration prosecutions to Obama asking the question, “Has the policy changed?”

Boldt first showed a graph from 2017 which showed that generally, criminal immigration prosecutions were going down.

In early 2018, however, there was an increase in criminal immigration prosecutions when the zero-tolerance memo was released.

“I think for me there’s just a genuine curiosity to understand, or try and understand, what is going on with U.S. immigration policy right now.”

Dr. Ethan Boldt, an assistant professor of criminal justice and political sciences

Boldt’s second research question asked, “What type of criminal sanctions are being pursued under this and how does that shift from Trump to Obama?”

When presenting the research from this question, Boldt talked about some of the problems that arose. Since the criminal immigration prosecutions are labeled as Class B misdemeanors, they aren’t documented making the data hard to obtain.

For his research, Boldt looked at reentry cases which are considered felonies so they are documented and tracked by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts.

Boldt presented a graph of cases from 2014 to the end of 2019 which showed under the Trump administration, individuals who are facing felonies for reentry are given less prison time than under Obama’s administration.

Boldt went on to explain some of the possibilities for this saying, “One is they are using these cases, increasing numbers of them, as a backdoor to deport people.”

“The second possibility is that the U.S. Attorneys Offices are so stressed by the number of cases they’re taking that they’re offering people better plea deals in an attempt to get them to plea guilty faster,” Boldt said.

Boldt found that part of the guilty plea for those facing felonies for reentry is that they can consent to be deported instead of going to prison. “It says a lot about the administration’s efforts to sort of police this area,” Boldt said.

Though Boldt didn’t have the time to answer his third research question during the presentation, he still presented it to the audience. The question asked, “To what extent does the increase in these cases push out other areas of criminal enforcement?”

To end, Boldt said he would like to explore whether the criminal immigration prosecutions in border districts are taking the focus away from other cases.

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