Expedited court hearings along the border are a major force driving a seismic demographic shift in who is being sent to federal prison. Statistics released this week revealed that Hispanics now comprise nearly half of all people sentenced for federal felony crimes, a number swollen by immigration offenses. In comparison, Hispanics last year made up 16 percent of the total U.S. population.
Sentences for felony immigration crimes, which include illegal crossing as well as other crimes such as alien smuggling, accounted for about 87 percent of the increase in the number of Hispanics sent to prison over the past decade, according to an analysis of U.S. Sentencing Commission data.
The trend has divided lawmakers and officials in the courts and along the border. Some politicians believe the en masse hearings should be expanded to deter illegal immigration. Others question whether the system actually affects people seeking to cross the border, while some contend the programs distract prosecutors from pursuing more serious crimes.
Operation Streamline and other fast-track programs speed illegal immigrants through accelerated legal proceedings, where most guilty pleas come in Spanish and thousands of Mexican citizens end up locked up each year for entering the country without papers.