These days, many Americans are hardening their attitudes toward illegal immigration – driven in part by economic worries and fear of Mexico's narco-wars drifting north.
But a crackdown, at least a partial one, has been happening at the federal level, too. A series of high-profile sweeps known as Operation Cross Check have netted thousands of what the Obama administration refers to as criminal aliens. And felony prosecutions for immigration crimes increased by 42 percent during President Obama's first two years in office, a factor in the record 400,000 deportations this fiscal year, according to data from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, an immigration tracking agency at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y.
While these developments may help address some longstanding concerns, they've also had profound implications for Hispanics – most of whom are in the United States legitimately, but some of whom make up the lion's share of the 11 million illegal immigrants in America. In fact, Hispanics are now the majority group being sent to federal prison, largely because of the criminal prosecution of repeat border jumpers.
Other disturbing trends, partially tied to the mass arrests of Hispanic male breadwinners, are also emerging. For the first time, more Hispanic than white children are living in poverty. The unemployment rate for Hispanics is hovering around 25 percent. College-bound rates for Hispanic teenagers are flagging, and their grade school test scores are, on the whole, poor when compared with those of blacks, whites, and Asians.
"It's unclear ... [whether] officials who are making decisions [about sweeps and increased prosecution] are really comprehending the kinds of social policy implications that they raise," says Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University in New York. "You're taking massive numbers of people and incarcerating them, which means they can't support their families, which leads to serious repercussions."
Taken together, the crackdowns on Hispanics and unflattering statistics about them have begun to affect their image in America. In particular, the line has been blurred between the broader Hispanic population and outright lawbreakers – the result being the growing persecution of all Hispanic-looking people.
"The discourse right now is that all Latinos are immigrants, and if they're all immigrants, then there's the suspicion that they're all illegal, which means they're criminals," says Allert Brown-Gort, associate director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. "And if they're criminals, the thinking goes, that means we don't want them here."
Yet the 50 million Hispanics in the US are likely to be a key voting bloc in the 2012 elections. Presidential candidates have been trying to appeal to this group – while also appearing tough on illegal immigration.
In 2008, Mr. Obama won the majority of Hispanic support. But with the increase in felony prosecutions, he now appears to be appeasing America's "law and order" impulses. Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who as a GOP presidential candidate has defended in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, has come across as a critic of "heartless" laws and policies aimed at Hispanic immigrants.
"When people think about border enforcement and immigration, they don't always think about people," says Kevin Johnson, dean of the University of California, Davis, School of Law, as well as a noted immigration law expert. "That's why President [George W.] Bush and Governor Perry had a better understanding of immigration, because they saw that there were people and families involved ... and that it's inhumane and unfair to treat people as if they're not human."
Still, the Obama administration has not launched an indiscriminate crackdown. In a controversial decision this summer, ICE Director John Morton urged agents and US attorneys to end prosecutions against nonfelony immigration scofflaws, including students who may have come to the country as infants and older Hispanics who have been in the US for many years. ICE is balancing that approach with stepped-up prosecutions for repeat border jumpers and convicted felons.
"Smart and effective immigration enforcement relies on setting priorities for removal and executing on those priorities," Mr. Morton said in an Oct. 17 statement, adding that the administration's new discretionary policy is working. "These year-end totals indicate that we are making progress, with more convicted criminals, recent border crossers, egregious immigration law violators, and immigration fugitives being removed from the country than ever before."
Supporters of ICE crackdowns and tougher laws say the costs of illegal immigrants outweigh the benefits, especially given the group's perceived ties to border crime and drug trafficking.
The trend of locking up Mexicans and taking other measures against them is part of a bigger societal warning: Get legal or get out. Indeed, scaring illegal immigrants away or putting them in jail is "the intended consequence of Alabama's legislation," US Rep. Mo Brooks (R) of Alabama said recently.
Yet the larger Hispanic community has felt the impact. Some immigrants, both legal and illegal, have gone from protesting in the streets five years ago to living in fear in places like Alabama.
"When you look at all these problems – poverty, unemployment, number of immigrants going to prison or being deported – through the lens of each individual, you get one story," says Patricia Foxen, associate director of research at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization based in Washington. "But when you add it all together, it's absolutely huge."
Collinsville, a small town on the ridge of Lookout Mountain in northeast Alabama, offers a close-up view. Hispanics, and especially their children, have become part of this community's fabric, working in poultry plants and in tomato and sweet-potato fields. Half the stores in the one-block downtown are Hispanic-owned. But after the Alabama immigration law expanded police powers, many have left and others are holed up in their homes. Even those here legally feel unwelcome.
That's true for Lulu Alvarez, a legal Mexican immigrant who works at a poultry plant. Suddenly, she says, people here "think all Hispanics are the same, and they treat everybody the same way, as though we're all in the country illegally."
Several years ago, Collinsville resident Mickey Williams wrote to the local paper about how illegal Hispanic migrants were depressing wages, which hurts American workers in the area. But he also rents apartments to Hispanic families. A day after a judge upheld most of the Alabama law, one of his apartments was empty of people, but still full of their belongings.
"I have such mixed emotions, but at the end of the day, I think [prosecutions and crackdowns] are not the right thing to do," says Mr. Williams. "It's a terrible price to pay for trying to do better for yourself and for your kids."
Despite the record deportation numbers and skyrocketing Hispanic prison population, the Obama administration still faces criticism from conservatives who say it's attempting to pave a way toward amnesty for many illegal immigrants. Nevertheless, the new prosecutorial priorities could create an uncomfortable legacy for the Obama administration.
"It's pretty clear that this was not foreseeable ... that there would be such a large percentage [of Hispanics] in federal prison," says Professor Denno. "It's not a success for people who are incarcerated, and it's not a success for the future of the country."