Is Illegal Immigration a Crime?

Is illegal immigration just a civil offense, or is it a crime? If it's a crime, how serious is it? Does it amount to felony, or is it just considered a misdemeanor? In order to get answers to these questions, you need to go through some facts about it.
Somewhere between 12 - 20 million illegal immigrants are living in the United States of America as of today. While that is just an estimated range, the actual number can turn out to be well beyond the 20-million mark. A recent CBS News website poll on whether illegal immigration leads to more crime, had a whopping 77 percent of the citizens answering in affirmative.

Even though it is a general belief that illegal immigration and crime go hand in hand, not many people out there actually know that it is a crime in itself. Why does it amount to criminal act? And if it's a crime, shouldn't the 12 - 20 million immigrants living in the United States illegally, be sentenced to imprisonment?

Immigration Laws: An Overview

Many people argue that the right to freedom of movement should not be restricted to the national border, but instead, applied to movement between different countries as well. However, almost all countries have strict immigration laws in place with some underlying economic or nationalistic political reason. As far as economic reasons are concerned, all countries make proper documentation mandatory for immigrants, so as to make sure that influx of migrants doesn't put pressure on the national economy. On the other hand, nationalist political reasons, which have become a priority for most of the nations following the series of terrorist strikes, most often revolve around the concept of national security. While refugees are exempted from immigration laws, countries have the freedom to formulate their own definition of a 'refugee'.

Illegal Immigration in the US

The US Census Bureau estimates that there are around 38 million immigrants in the United States, of which one-third are illegal immigrants. When it comes to illegal immigration, most Americans picture Mexicans crossing over the notorious US-Mexican border to enter the United States. There is absolutely no doubt about the fact that Mexicans have a lion's share when it comes to overall illegal migrant population (57 percent). However, it's not just the Mexicans who sneak into the United States, that qualify for illegal immigrants.

Even those individuals from other parts of the world who enter the country legally, but continue to stay here even after their visa has expired (and those who violate the stipulated visa terms) are considered illegal immigrants. If statistics are to be believed, around 25 - 40 percent of immigrants who enter the United States legally eventually become illegal immigrants as they over-stay their visa. Simply put, any foreign national who violates US immigration policies and/or national laws and enters the US territory without taking permission from the authorities, is considered an illegal immigrant.

Crime or Civil Offense?

In order to figure out whether illegal immigration amounts to a criminal act or civil offense, you need to understand the difference between these two concepts. In legal terminology, 'criminal offense' refers to violation of law, which is punishable by a stipulated amount as fine or a jail sentence. On the other hand, 'civil offense' is an offense, which is only punishable by a fine.

Entering the US territory illegally amounts to a criminal offense as per the stipulations of US Code Title 8 Section 1325. It suggests that any alien who is caught crossing or attempting to cross over the US border at any place or time other than that stipulated by the immigration authorities, eludes examination or inspection by them, or resorts to false or misleading representation to enter the country is guilty and can be subjected to punishment. For the first offense, the said individual can be fined under Title 18 or imprisoned for a maximum period of 6 months (or both). If the offense is repeated, he can be fined under Title 18 or imprisoned for a maximum period of 2 years (or both).

In addition to these criminal penalties, there also exist civil penalties that the alien can be subjected to, for illegally crossing over or attempting to cross over into the US territory. The law states that an alien caught illegally crossing over (or attempting to do the same) can be fined US$50 - US$250 for the first offense. If the same person is caught violating the law for the second time, he can be fined double the amount which he paid for the first offense. All these facts are more than enough to prove that it is a criminal as well as civil offense.

While the impact of illegal immigration on the economic sector of the country is more than obvious, most of the arguments on this topic revolve around its relationship with the crime rate. Whether it is really the root cause of rising crime rate is again a subject of debate, but that is another story. Statistics suggest that the number of illegal immigrants in detention in the United States increased from 16,000 in 1998 to 30,000 in 2008. The detention of immigrants for illegal entry in the US territories itself hints at the fact that it is considered a crime.
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