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DHS Report Shows “Significant Prison Population of Incarcerated Aliens”

by Christopher Zoukis

The proportion of federal prisoners likely born outside the United States is nearly twice as large as among the general population. That was a key finding of a report published by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Released on December 21, 2017, the report was the third to examine the immigration status of federal prisoners and pretrial detainees in recent years.

Of more than 185,000 federal prisoners at the end of the 2017 fiscal year, over 24,000 were foreign-born while another 21,000 were having their immigration status checked. Taken together, they comprised about a quarter of all federal prisoners – a proportion nearly twice as large as the 13 percent of the general population born outside the U.S.

Unsurprisingly, 97 percent of those prisoners were either under investigation for removal by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or already had deportation orders.

The numbers for federal pretrial detainees were nearly identical. The U.S. Marshals Service, which is responsible for holding pretrial prisoners, reported that over 13,000 out of more than 50,000 detainees self-reported they were not U.S. citizens. Of those, 99 percent were either pending adjudication of removal or already subject to deportation orders.

Just seven foreign-born prisoners held by the federal Bureau of Prisons – representing 0.002 percent of the total BOP population – have been granted relief from deportation. The report did not say how many non-citizen prisoners or pretrial detainees applied for relief and were denied. It also did not count foreign-born prisoners in state prisons and local jails.

Released the same day that Congress passed a short-term spending bill that failed to address the plight of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – people brought to the U.S. illegally as children, known as “dreamers” – the DHS report was seized on by both proponents and opponents of tighter immigration controls.

“For a long time the number of non-citizens serving time in federal prison has been disproportionate to their share of the population,” said Jessica M. Vaughan, Director of Policy Studies for the Center for Immigration Studies. “This is because a disproportionate number are border-related crimes, such as human smuggling and drug trafficking, and some are immigration offenders. These crimes are most often committed by citizens of other countries, and these numbers show why we need to control our borders.”

“The report proves one thing only: The administration will take any opportunity possible to twist facts to demonize immigrants,” countered Tom Jawetz, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. “The vast majority of immigrants in federal prison are there for crimes that only immigrants can be charged with – illegal entry and illegal entry after removal. When you cook the books you shouldn’t pretend to be surprised by the results.”

The DHS report was unclear in regard to the breakdown of crimes committed by foreign-born prisoners; many of the underlying immigration-related offenses can be committed only by non-citizens. Controlling for such crimes, such as illegal reentry, may well put the proportion of foreign-born prisoners in federal custody in a different perspective.

According to the Washington Examiner, experts have said the percentage of non-citizen prisoners is down, though under President Trump it is likely to rise again.

Vaughan suggested to the Examiner that the high proportion of foreign-born prisoners is a consequence of lax border policies, leading to some questionable conclusions about criminality based on the numbers in the DHS report.

“This does not mean that non-citizens are more criminal than Americans,” she said, “but it does mean that they clearly are not less criminal, and that there are certain crimes that are more closely associated with non-citizens, and certain crimes are taking place because we do not have a secure border. When we do, and when all criminal aliens are deported instead of released, then the proportion of non-citizens in federal prison will go down.”

According to the American Immigration Council, however, “For more than a century, innumerable studies have confirmed two simple yet powerful truths about the relationship between immigration and crime: immigrants are less likely to commit serious crimes or be behind bars than the native-born, and high rates of immigration are associated with lower rates of violent crime and property crime.”

A December 5, 2017 news report by Reuters noted that deportations have decreased but arrests of undocumented immigrants are up under the Trump administration. There were around 226,000 deportations during fiscal year 2017, down 6 percent from the previous year, while there were 111,000 arrests by ICE – a 42 percent increase. 

Sources:,,,,, Reuters


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