The L.A. Times this morning falsely implies that illegally entering the country is not a crime.
That is the impression left by an article this morning regarding a bill to make illegal presence in the United States a federal crime. By making the bill sound like it will recharacterize a significant number of illegal immigrants as criminals, the article falsely suggests that merely entering the country illegally is not a federal crime. Not so. The article should have made this point far more clear.
The article is titled Illegal Immigration Could Be a Felony. The small “deck” headline reads: “House Republicans push legislation that defies Bush’s guest-worker plan, under which criminals are not eligible for legal status.” And the article opens:
Under immigration legislation being considered in the House, living illegally in the United States would no longer be a violation of civil immigration law. It would be a federal crime.
But making the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants into felons could deal a fatal blow to the proposed guest-worker program that is a cornerstone of President Bush’s immigration overhaul, because immigrants who have committed crimes are not eligible for legal status in the United States.
The cumulative effect of this presentation is to cause readers to conclude that entering the country illegally is a civil offense, not a criminal one. The main headline refers not to illegal presence, but illegal immigration. The smaller headline suggests that the bill could be a “fatal blow” to the guest worker program by classifying illegal immigrants as criminals — suggesting that a significant number are not already criminals. And the first sentence of the article says that living here illegally is merely a civil offense.
A rational reader must reach the conclusion that entering the country illegally is now only a civil offense.
Wrong! Section 1325 of Title 8 of the United States Code, subdivision (a), states as follows:
Any alien who (1) enters or attempts to enter the United States at any time or place other than as designated by immigration officers, or (2) eludes examination or inspection by immigration officers, or (3) attempts to enter or obtains entry to the United States by a willfully false or misleading representation or the willful concealment of a material fact, shall, for the first commission of any such offense, be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than 6 months, or both, and, for a subsequent commission of any such offense, be fined under title 18, or imprisoned not more than 2 years, or both.
I bolded the clue for you: imprisonment is not a consequence of a civil offense. Entering the country illegally, even the first time, is a crime.
Granted, the first such offense is only a misdemeanor. But illegal presence would also be only a misdemeanor, if the sponsor of the bill gets his way:
[A spokesman said] Sensenbrenner [Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the bill’s sponsor] had added an amendment that would reduce unlawful presence to a misdemeanor instead of a felony because “you can detain them without having to go through a jury trial, then their case goes through the immigration system.”
It doesn’t matter to the guest-worker program whether the immigrant has committed a misdemeanor or a felony:
Reducing unlawful presence to a misdemeanor would still make illegal immigrants ineligible for legalization, legal experts said. They said the risk of prosecution would drive illegal immigrants further underground.
A bill that criminalizes illegal presence in the country — such as overstaying your visa — isn’t making criminals out of most illegal immigrants. They are already criminals. When most Americans speak of the scourge of illegal immigration, then are primarily speaking, not of people who have overstayed their visas, but rather of people who never belonged here to begin with. But those people have already committed crimes.
You can read the article almost all the way to the end without seeing anything that explains this. Instead, you read a lot of moaning from immigrant advocates about how terrible this is going to be, only reinforcing the idea that this is a huge change:
“It’s an extraordinarily hostile anti-immigrant measure,” said Joan Friedland, immigration policy attorney for the National Immigration Law Center. “It indicates that their talk about dealing with temporary workers in the future was hollow, because if you do something that makes people ineligible for the program in the future, it means you were never serious about it in the first place.”
How is it making people ineligible if they were already ineligible? Without a clear explanation, most readers simply aren’t going to make the distinction between illegal entry, which is a crime anyway, and illegal presence, which the new bill criminalizes.
Only at the very end of the article, in the last two paragraphs, do we get this:
Enforcement advocates said concerns about the measure were overblown because prosecutors would use their discretion when applying it.
“This isn’t something that would happen all that often,” said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. “Almost all illegals are criminals anyway, in that about 70% jumped the border and the remaining ones work illegally, which is a federal offense. This would just give prosecutors another tool. It’s a helpful advance, but a modest one.”
I bet most readers see that and think: “Wait a second. Is he saying that jumping the border is illegal? But didn’t the article say . . . Wow. I’m confused.”
The paper could do a better job than this. It would detract quite a bit from the drama of the article, but it would be a lot more accurate.