More Americans say they favor criminal prosecutions for people who illegally cross the border rather than punishing them with civil fines, according to a new Hill-HarrisX poll. There is a split along party lines — 67% of Republicans and only 24% of Democrats favor criminal punishment.

This issue was brought to national attention during a recent presidential debate when one of the candidates, Julián Castro, called for repeal of Section 1325 of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act. That section makes it a crime to cross the border without permission, and allows the government to lock up the people they catch and separate them from their children.

During the debate, nine of the 10 Democrats on stage raised their hands to indicate they did not think that those crossing the border illegally should face a criminal punishment.

The migrant detention centers along our southern border that hold these accused “criminals” are over-crowded, and the conditions are deplorable. When Vice President Mike Pence toured a facility in Texas, he found nearly 400 men crammed behind cage-like fences with not enough room to lie down, no mats or pillows, no toothbrushes or water.

“This is tough stuff,” he said. The children are being held separately in cramped, dirty conditions without sufficient food or water.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

In August, a federal appeals court ruled that the government must provide detained migrant children with basic hygiene supplies such as toothbrushes and sleeping mats. (The Trump administration had argued against the need to do so.)

There are now more than 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States, but most of them haven’t committed a crime. Overstaying your visa is only a civil violation punishable by a fine and deportation, but no jail. These cases are handled in immigration court proceedings; civil removal proceedings far outnumber criminal prosecutions.

Many of the border patrol agents who enforce the criminal immigration laws have been revealed to be very anti-immigrant. A secret Facebook group with 9,500 current and former agents joked about the deaths of migrants, discussed throwing burritos at Latino members of Congress visiting a detention facility, and posted a vulgar illustration depicting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engaged in oral sex with a migrant.

One message included repeated discussions about burning the migrants up. After all, they are all criminals.

The truth is that very few of the migrants are “rapists, drug dealers and criminals” as President Trump has claimed. They are people fleeing fearful conditions, gang violence, starvation, or rape, seeking asylum in the U.S. as permitted by our laws.

As Julián Castro pointed out, the father and his daughter who drowned trying to swim across the Rio Grande River had presented themselves at an official border crossing and asked for asylum, but were turned away.

What happened to the poem inscribed on our Statue of Liberty? “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

If immigrants can't prove their asylum claim, they should be deported, but don’t treat them like criminals.

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota’s Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills and probate in the Lake County area, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. He can be reached at or