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Study: Immigrants experience harsher legal punishments than citizens in the U.S.

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Posted October 3, 2014
Picture: Portrait of Mexican immigrant. Image credit: Matthew T Rader via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Picture: Portrait of Mexican immigrant. Image credit: Matthew T Rader via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

New study published in American Sociological Review demonstrates that immigrants are more likely to be incarcerated than U.S. nationals. These results suggest that citizenship should be included among the markers of social stratification.

Statistics show that the proportion of federal offenders who are Hispanic has risen by 20% since the beginning of the 90’s. This growing was coincident with rapidly rising immigration to the United States. Many newcomers arrive from Latin American countries such as Mexico. “The foreign-born population has nearly doubled since 1990 and now stands at approximately 38 million, and the estimated number of unauthorized immigrants has more than tripled, from 3.5 to 10.8 million,” authors of the article note. This curious fact motivated them to explore what is the link between political rights and capital punishment?

In order to investigate this intriguing question Michael T. Light at Purdue University and his colleague at Ohio State University and University of Wisconsin Madison analyzed U.S. sentencing commission’s standardized research files. “Through a series of empirical tests with different analytic approaches and additional robustness checks, one finding unambiguously emerges: citizenship status is a powerful determinant of punishment outcomes,” the scientists claim. Moreover, punishment periods for non-citizens were significantly longer. In addition, sociologists found out that citizenship has become more important in the courtroom over the years.

In fact, these observations can be accounted by several different theories. On the one hand, it can be explained by Black’s theory of law. According to this theory social world can be distinguished into the centre and periphery. “Less integrated and marginalized groups occupy the periphery of social life, and as a result are disproportionately subjected to harsher treatment in the justice system,” the scholars explain.

On the other hand, group threat theory can be successfully applied as well.  This theory states that large minorities are often perceived as a danger. Therefore, behavior with members of that minority is hardened. This theory is strongly supported by previous research investigating various aspects of the relationship between majorities and minorities. “There is ample reason to apply the notion of group threat to the case of anti-immigrant prejudice, punishment, and in our case, the punishment of non-U.S. citizens,” Light and his associates think.

Article: Light M. T., Massoglia M. and King R.D., 2014, Citizenship and Punishment: The Salience of National Membership in U.S. Criminal Courts, American Sociological Review, 79: 825, DOI: 10.1177/0003122414543659, source link.

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