Hispanics outnumber other ethnic groups among criminal offenders in the federal courts due in part to the crackdown on illegal immigration, according to a study released Wednesday.
The Pew Hispanic Center, which analyzed federal sentencing data, found that in 2007, 40 percent of the offenders were Hispanic, compared with 27 percent white, 23 percent black and 10 percent from other groups. In 1991, whites comprised 43 percent of those sentenced in federal courts and 24 percent were Hispanic.
The Hispanic offenders were more likely to be non-citizens and nearly half of the crimes were immigration-related. Three-quarters of the crimes were for re-entering or remaining in the country illegally, while about a fifth were for smuggling, transporting or harboring an illegal immigrant.
Black and white criminal offenders were sentenced most often for drug-related crimes.
"There's been a general increase in the population of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. ... Second, there has been a change to policy with regards to immigration," said Mark Hugo Lopez, the center's associate director.
There are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country, up from about 4 million in 1992. During the 1990s and much of this decade, most immigrants to the United States have come from Mexico and Latin America.
Lopez linked the increase to a 1995 federal program dubbed Operation Gatekeeper, which stopped undocumented immigrants at the border. Also, a 1996 immigration law that designated certain crimes as "aggravated felonies" has led to increasing caseloads in federal courts.
Immigration prosecutions have quadrupled since 2001 as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Homeland Security Department, has deployed fugitive operations teams to arrest illegal immigrants and those who have committed crimes.
More than half of the offenders were sentenced at five courts near the U.S.-Mexico border: the Southern and Western districts of Texas, 17 percent and 15 percent; Arizona District, 11 percent; Southern District of California, 6 percent and New Mexico district, 6 percent.
The numbers change significantly when Hispanic offenders are separated by citizenship status. Hispanics who are U.S. citizens were only 11 percent of all sentenced federal offenders in 2007 and 8 percent in 1991.
Angela Kelley, director of the Immigration Policy Center, a pro-immigrant group, said the center's report "certainly begs the question about prison resources and law enforcement resources all going to rounding up people whose only crime is they are here without papers."
Steve Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies which supports strong immigration enforcement, said the numbers are a reflection of the immigration explosion. He said the offenders who have gone through the sentencing are likely to have committed serious crimes.