The number of immigrants locked up in US jails has exploded in the past 15 years, after a law that allows "double punishment" was introduced. Today, 30,000 detainees are awaiting deportation.

The number of detained immigrants in the US has gone from 5,000 in 1994 to more than 30,000 in 2008 according to a study by OneAmerica, a non-profit organisation in collaboration with the Seattle University School of Law. The explosion in numbers is due to a change in the law passed in 1996, which classed almost any crime taken out by an immigrant as an "aggravated crime". Whether you're robbing a bank or just smoking a spliff, you're on the list.

When an immigrant's found guilty of an "aggravated crime", they will have already completed the length of their sentence by the time they reach the detention centre, to then wait for extradition. The law doesn't only affect those who've committed crimes after 1996. It's retroactive and so takes in crimes committed beforehand. Therefore, immigrants with a criminal record who leave the country risk being sent to a detention centre on their return and then extradited. While some Americans find the rule "unfair and insane", others consider it normal that immigrants are subjected to stricter rules than US citizens.

"The biggest problem with this law is that it’s retroactive"

Deborah Notkin is a spokesperson for AILA, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, a national organisation of attorneys specialised in immigration laws.

The 1996 law that eliminated all discretion for any minor offence is unfair and insane! Before that, immigrants who had committed a minor violation wouldn't have been kept in mandatory detention when re-entering the country. The situation would have been explained and relief would have been granted. This law makes arrangements impossible. Even though they might understand the situation and sympathise with the people, judges have no choice but to detain them. What's more; many detention centres don't appear to have controls in place; some of these facilities have been contracted out to non-governmental organisations. A well-funded anti-immigration lobby called The Pioneer Fund is responsible for this law. It's a xenophobic, white supremacist organization.

The biggest problem with this law is that it's retroactive. Non-citizens charged with small crimes before 1996 were systematically told by their lawyer to plead guilty because at that time they didn't risk much more than a fine. But now, since the law has changed, the same people risk being sent to detention centres if ever they venture out of the country and try to come back. Almost all crimes related to drugs or firearms are now considered aggravated offences."

"There is no reason why immigrants who break the law should stay in the US"

Ira Mehlman is the National Media Director for FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform), a non-profit organisation that advocates reduced immigration.


Immigrants on US soil don't only violate the law when they commit a crime. They also violate the terms and conditions on which they're here. So since they have a different status than citizens, it's normal that they don't face the same charges. Immigrants have always had a special status as for law offences, but before 1996, it wasn't really enforced. In 1996, Congress made it more specific. We (FAIR) are advocating in favor of this reform. Millions of immigrants would be happy to come to the US so there is no reason why those who break the law should stay. Of course some cases should go to the bottom of the pile. If an immigration officer has two cases: one bank robber and someone who smoked a joint, he should go after the bank robber first. But there is nothing wrong with the law itself. And, just to give you an example, when you're arrested by an officer for driving 10 km above the speed limit, you can't say it's not a big deal just because some people drive 50 km above the limit!"

Live from jail: victims of the law