Always More To Learn About The Law

I heard the other day that it is not a criminal offense to be an illegal alien, it is a civil offense. Being an ever-curious fellow, I looked it up. To my surprise, the answer is … both. From Findlaw:

Improper Entry Is a Crime

To be clear, the most common crime associated with illegal immigration is likely improper entry. Under federal criminal law, it is misdemeanor for an alien (i.e., a non-citizen) to:

  • Enter or attempt to enter the United States at any time or place other than designated by immigration officers;
  • Elude examination or inspection by immigration officers; or
  • Attempt to enter or obtain entry to the United States by willfully concealing, falsifying, or misrepresenting material facts.

The punishment under this federal law is no more than six months of incarceration and up to $250 in civil penalties for each illegal entry. These acts of improper entry — including the mythic “border jumping” — are criminal acts associated with illegally immigrating to the United States.

Like all other criminal charges in the United States, improper entry must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict.

Unlawful Presence Is Not a Crime

Some may assume that all immigrants who are in the United States without legal status must have committed improper entry. This simply isn’t the case. Many foreign nationals legally enter the country on a valid work or travel visa, but fail to exit before their visa expires for a variety of reasons.

But mere unlawful presence in the country is not a crime. It is a violation of federal immigration law to remain in the country without legal authorization, but this violation is punishable by civil penalties, not criminal. Chief among these civil penalties is deportation or removal, where an unlawful resident may be detained and removed from the country. Unlawful presence can also have negative consequences for a resident who may seek to gain re-entry into the United States, or permanent residency.

Both improper entry and unlawful presence should be avoided by any immigrant to the United States, but an illegal alien cannot be criminally charged or incarcerated simply for being undocumented.

Fascinating … it turns out that sneaking across the border is a criminal offense, while overstaying a visa is a civil offense.


Part of the problem that I can see from looking at these laws is that six months in a US jail sounds terrible to your average citizen … but to some young guy who has been in a Mexican jail, and lived in a Mexican slum, six months in a US jail is a government-paid holiday.

Here’s how I learned second-hand that I never wanted to find out first-hand about the joys of Mexican jails.

When I got out of the nuthouse, I just wanted to travel. I was done with walls. I wanted to move. I wanted to wake up in one place and go to sleep in another. I wanted to be on the road. My best friend Mel had gotten out of the same nuthouse a few months before me, and he felt the same.

A few months after I turned 21, Mel and his girlfriend Andrea and my girlfriend Michelle and I decided that we’d go to Mexico. Starting in San Francisco, we drove Mel’s old car to the border, on the road down through Phoenix to Nogales. It was wonderful to be in the car and moving, with best friends and lovers, and particularly with no bars across the windows and no locked doors. At night we’d find some isolated location and roll out the sleeping bags.

We came into Tucson in the afternoon. The orange trees were in bloom, and the air was warm and heavy with the sweet scent. I opened the window and breathed deeply, letting the hot spicy citrus-flavored air bake the nuthouse cold out of my bones.

In the evening we got to the border. We slept out of town in the desert. We wanted to start early, so we could cross the desert before the afternoon heat. At the break of day we went to the Mexican border station and tried to get across. No joy.

The problem was that all of us were 21 or over except Andrea, who was 20. As a minor, she couldn’t go to Mexico without a letter from her parents.

So to solve the problem, Mel and Andrea decided to get married. They’d been living together for a while, been through good times and bad together, and under the rules, if they were married, she didn’t have to be 21.

We went and hunted up the address of a Justice of the Peace and knocked at his door. He was a toothless old man, still half asleep. He welcomed us in wearing his pajamas and robe, and hollered at his wife that some young folks wanted to get married. His wife came out with her hair in curlers, as full of warmth and welcome as her husband. He went in the back. She shooed a half dozen bluetick hounds out of the front room. She offered us coffee. Her husband came back. He was neatly dressed. I noticed that this time he had teeth.

Despite the hour and the lack of notice, the JP and his wife put on a wonderful marriage service. His wife had removed the curlers and brushed out her hair, and put on a lovely dress. It was clear that she both cared and was caring. The dogs glided silently back in about halfway through the service. Apparently they approved, they wagged their tails.

The JP said all the right words. His wife smiled a blessing. The groom and the bride kissed. We thanked the JP and his wife, and paid him the fee. They wished the newlyweds well, and we went off to cross into Mexico.

When we got back to the border that afternoon, just before we arrived at the Mexican station we noticed the most world-beaten man you could imagine staggering across the border towards us. In the words of Robert Service, “He looked like a man with one foot in the grave, and hardly the strength of a louse”. His clothing was rags and tatters. He was barefoot. He had no hat, and his face showed the signs of partially healed and peeled sunburn. Curious what could lead a man to such a state, we waved him over. He told us his story.

A few months before, just like us, he’d decided to visit Mexico. Just like we were planning to do, one night he was camping out when the Federales arrested him. He didn’t speak Spanish, so he still wasn’t entirely clear why he’d been arrested. He said he thought it was because like us, he had long hair.

He had been given a summary trial which he didn’t understand and found guilty. He was put in a sealed van with a bunch of very uncongenial criminals and driven for what seemed like hours. When the doors opened he found himself in some jail or prison somewhere. He had no money, which in a Mexican jail is a Very Bad Thing™. In a Mexican jail you need to pay for various non-essentials like food …

Right off his shoes were stolen. He didn’t speak the language, although he learned some gutter Spanish in jail. Without money to buy food, all he got to eat was beans and water. He was kept there for three months, while he was pressured to buy his way out. The jailers had started at $1,000 as the “fine” for his unspecified crime. If he paid that, he’d be let out. No way he could raise that amount of money, if he could have he wouldn’t be eating beans. At the end of three months, they had progressively reduced the “fine” to a hundred bucks … but it might as well still have been a thousand, or a million, for all the difference it made. He didn’t have one dollar, much less a hundred.

So one fine day they realized that they’d never get a dime off him. They opened the door of the prison, kicked him out, and locked the door. He looked around. He wasn’t sure where he was. During his stay he’d found out he was about seventy miles south of the US border. He walked out to the highway, and turned north. He started to hitchhike.

But he looked like a refugee from a nuclear holocaust, so nobody would stop. He started walking. He still had no shoes. He walked for days. He said the poor people would help him, give him water and maybe a tortilla and beans. They had no spare shoes for him, they were barefoot themselves. The rich people just looked the other way. He was too weak to walk very far each day, and so day after day he walked and walked, always north.

Finally, with his feet near to giving out, he stumbled across the border, where we were the first people he’d talked to … he’d been animated by being able to finally tell his story, but at the end, his tale and his energy petered out at the same time. He sat looking dazed.

He showed us his feet. It was amazing he could walk on them. They were a mass of cuts and sores. But he said they could wait, the real problem was that he was literally starving. We took him to a cafe and bought him some food. He ate it like … like … I have no comparison. All I can say is he ate it like a man who had fed for three months on nothing but beans and water, and at the end walked seventy miles on almost no food … his eyes when the first plate arrived all steamy and mouth-watering were a study in wonderment.

He ate, but he couldn’t eat too much. We got him some food for the road. Then we took him to a doctor and paid the doc to work on the man’s feet. The man came out with his feet wrapped. The doc came out shaking his head. That was about all we could do. We had very little money ourselves, we were on the road, no room in the car.

So he thanked us, and we said anyone would have done it, and if you’d seen him you’d know that was true. Nobody could look on that human wreckage and hear his story and not be moved to help him. So we wished him well, and we left him and went back to the car to discuss our next move …

… and curiously, none of us suggested that we continue on to Mexico as planned. In fact it wasn’t mentioned once. We talked idly of Phoenix, and what the Grand Canyon looked like that time of year. We spoke of the places we’d seen on the way down. At the end, we’d decided to go to Yellowstone Park. No one said one word about Mexico, or prisons, or someone’s feet. Mel and I had just spent six months in the Letterman nuthouse. Which ever way we went, it wasn’t going to be where there were prisons like that …

And despite the fact that I’ve been to Mexico many times since and enjoyed it greatly, and despite the fact that I have Mexican friends and blood relatives who are wonderful people, and that I speak fluent colloquial Spanish …  the idea of Mexican jails still makes me nervous.

Which brings me back to why I told this tale. As a result of conditions being so bad both in Mexican jails and Mexican barrios, for many people the threat of six months in a US jail is no threat at all … which is why a barrier is necessary to stop immigration. Threats won’t do it. Whether someone is a criminal or is simply desperate for work, the distant threat of being fed, clothed, and housed for six months by the US Government is no deterrent at all.

Finally, let me point out a curious fact that most folks don’t know. The Mexican government is very, very happy that our border is so porous. A leaky border is to their advantage. It siphons off many of their criminals, because if someone is a crook, it is often much better to be a crook in the US than in Mexico. In particular, if a person has a criminal record in Mexico, starting over in the US looks very attractive.

NOTE THAT I AM NOT SAYING THAT ALL MEXICANS ILLEGALLY CROSSING THE SOUTHERN BORDER HAVE COMMITTED CRIMES IN MEXICO. Trump got wrongly tarred with that brush, and he didn’t say that either. I say clearly: some border crossers are decent people driven by economic considerations. Some are desperate people trying to reunite with their families. Some are honest folks simply fleeing from retribution in their home communities. Many have committed no crimes in their home countries.

And yes, some are criminals, either in their home lands or here in the US or both.

And further, as I learned above, as soon as they sneak across the border they’re all criminals …

Next, a porous border also siphons off many people who leave Mexico and other Central American countries for economic reasons, people who might cause social problems or require public assistance if they remained in their home countries and could not find work. That causes economic unrest.

Finally, the Mexican economy now gets about the same amount of money in remittances from the US as it does from sales of crude oil to the US … not a financial firehose that the Mexican government wants to turn off, thirty BILLION dollars annually.

(And of course, those gigantic monetary benefits the Mexican economy are a gigantic monetary LOSS to our economy. So yes, there are huge hidden costs to immigration, both legal and otherwise … but I digress).

Given these benefits of a leaky border to Mexico, whenever you see the Mexican government pontificating about how terrible the proposed Border Wall is and how Americans are cruel and heartless to build it, you need to remember that the proposed Wall will help keep Mexican criminals and also unemployed people in Mexico … and the Mexican government would much rather have those criminals and unemployed people be listed among the many other items that Mexico exports to the US …

Best to all,


The Usual: When you comment, please QUOTE THE EXACT WORDS THAT YOU ARE REFERRING TO, so we can all be clear about your subject.

27 thoughts on “Always More To Learn About The Law

  1. Most important and often not noted in these discussion is that an illegal alien has NO CIVIL RIGHTS in the United States.

    No right to an attorney, no right to be Mirandized, no right to a trial, no privacy 4th Amendment rights, no 5th Amendment rights, nada.

    Even if a trial is required to convict for illegal entry, it is irrelevant to any deportation action.


      • Here comes the magic dirt, step on US soil, and you’re an American with ALL American rights? You may choose to believe this, but that is NOT the way rights of any other nation are (not) afforded to visitors and sneak entries.


    • Oddly, this may not be true. Depends on the definition of civil rights.

      Recently (as I recall without recourse to Google) in Texas the (odd) case of a murderer’s execution was considered by the US Supreme Court. The original investigation had him in custody (not yet arrest, IIRC) when he more or less incriminated himself. At that he was warned with all standard warnings, arrested, jailed, tried, sentenced, slated for execution, and became fodder for the political campaign to end ALL executions in the U.S. for ANY crime. The campaign learned, much to the surprise of everyone, not least the criminal, that he was NOT a U.S. citizen but what we now call a “Dreamer” brought here illegally as a child, raised here, and under the incorrect impression he was a citizen. But, because he was actually a citizen of Mexico, the anti-execution lawyers argued that the Texas police SHOULD HAVE NOTIFIED THE MEXICAN EMBASSY upon taking him into custody. Not having knowing reason to do so, they didn’t, and because they didn’t, the political teams wanted the criminal deported instead of executed.

      ANYHOW, it appears that a foreign national of a country with various reciprocity arrangements with the United States DOES have a U.S. Civil Right to be assisted in criminal cases by ambassidorial representatives of his home country.

      Not the full set of constitutional civil rights, but at least that one.

      For whatever that’s worth.


    • Your claim surprised me, so I re-read the Amendments to your Constitution. My reading does not support your view.
      Could you show us what leads you to think that?


      • Leo Morgan February 26, 2017 at 4:21 am

        Your claim surprised me, so I re-read the Amendments to your Constitution. My reading does not support your view.
        Could you show us what leads you to think that?

        Grrrr … “what leads you to think” WHAT????

        Leo, this is why I insist that people quote what they are referring to. There is no way to tell who the “you” is in your comment. There is no why to tell which view is the “your view” that you vaguely reference. There is no way to tell what the “that” in your comment about “leads you to think that” refers to. And just which claim is “your claim”?

        Your comment is impenetrably meaningless as it stands.

        C’mon, Leo, it’s not that hard. We cannot read your mind. When you point vaguely “you” and “that” and “your view” and “your claim” and the like, there is no way to determine what you are babbling about.

        I’m sorry to be so hard about this, but I get tired of asking at the end of EVERY DAMNED POST for people to quote whatever they are discussing, but noooo … people like you seem to think you write so clearly that a quotation is not needed.

        Bad news, amigo … a quotation of what you are referring to is absolutely needed, because without it, your writing is incoherent.


        Liked by 1 person

  2. Maybe we can cut a deal with the Mexicans to house their citizens there who commit crimes here and we’ll pay for them. We’ll build the jails in Mexico and they run them. As long as they keep the scum jailed we’ll pay so they’ll have a reason to keep them there for their entire sentence instead of letting them loose immediately (and we’ll look the other way if they siphon off most of the money). That might make it a lot less attractive to come over here and commit crimes.


  3. If changed with a crime I would assume the defendant in entitled to an attorney. However, for an administrative deportation hearing the feds are not required to provide an attorney.


  4. Great story as usual W. Good choice not to stay in Mexico back in the day especially with long hair. I have heard similar stories about how rough it can be in a Mexican jail.

    During college years slipped behind two border guards that several other friends momentarily distracted to then get on a train to Guymas for Spring Break.

    Needed $50.00 back then to get across and my friend and i only had around $30.

    We hitchhiked from Chico….:-)

    At that tjme i did not know about rough Mexican jails. We were the only ones to get off at Guymas….rest of students went to Mazatland.sp

    Week i will bever forget….another story…knew it was going to be different. Train stopped a few miles from town. On our hot long walk to town we saw a dead man fifteen yards off tbe road. He had been there for a day or so. We were shook up over seeing that….careful for the next week but had an incredible time.:-)

    Agree with your Wall insights…praying for our country daily….



  5. Mexico is on the list of “fragile states” defined as:
    “a state whose central government is so weak or ineffective that it has little practical control over much of its territory; non-provision of public services; widespread corruption and criminality; refugees and involuntary movement of populations; and sharp economic decline.”
    I suppose that a wall, from your arguments, might help hasten it’s doom, but would be a saving grace if Mexico did totally collapse. Unfortunately there has not been much success by external entities in improving these states or reviving those that go on to failure because of criminality and institutionalized corruption. A visit to Mexico these days might be much more chancy based on these articles:
    The first time I came across this number as an estimate of kidnappings in Mexico throughout a whole year, I simply couldn’t believe it.
    I thought it must’ve been a mistake or some grossly exaggerated number thrown out to the public by some irresponsible party.
    Sadly, it’s no exaggeration.
    Those who came up with the figure — Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics — stood firmly behind it, and argued that the number is based on thousands of household polls they did in 2014.”


  6. I’ve lived about five miles east of Boulder, Colorado, home of the University of Colorado, since 1979. Around 25 or so years ago a CU Professor went to Mexico to do some archeological/anthropological research for the summer. After a while people at the university realized that he hadn’t been heard from for a while. Not too long after people started searching for him, someone noticed that some of the local Federales were driving his pickup truck. I can’t recall if his body was ever found. It wasn’t more than a few years after that that my retired Father started going to Mexico (Sonora/Guaymas/San Carlos) every winter. At eighty-eight years old he still drives there and back himself. I worry every time he goes, but he’s never had any problems (knock on wood). A few years ago his pickup truck got rear-ended in San Carlos. He had it fixed there, and I was on pins-and-needles the entire time he drove back to his home in Utah, watching his progress online via the FindMeSpot tracking beacon that my brother bought for him. I fully expected the body shop in San Carlos to have packed his wheel-wells full of bales of marijuana or cocaine, and then have someone run him off the road after he crossed back into the States, kill him and take the drugs. It didn’t happen. Still, every time he goes there I can’t help but worry about him. I don’t worry at all while he’s there because he’s surrounded by a wonderful bunch of Mexican friends who look out for him. It’s always the drive back to the states that worries me.


  7. Ah memories.
    The day after high school I spent a summer in Alaska on a boat, so when winter set in in Seattle I decided to visit Mexico. Got all the paperwork and caught a ride from what then sufficed as the internet- a bill-board at the university. Alaska Seattle Mexico in less than 6 months, Hitchhiked from San Fran to San Diego and caught a bus to iiirc Nogales. Got my papers stamped and started south riding busses. At Puerto Vallarta, camping in a tent on the beach with a gringo I met, we came back to the tent and I noticed some papers blowing down the beach, no worries if they were mine I was already in country.
    Three weeks later the bus stops about 2 a.m., way out in the middle of bum F. Egypt, Its border patrol or immigration or something, two men in uniform and rifles asking for papers.
    The nut of it,I spent three weeks in a Mexican jail where indeed you pay to eat, and believe me, meal time is a significant distraction from the nothingness of a concrete room adorned with concrete floor. Thankfully, a chainlink fence separates a half dozen of us from the hard core criminals. There is a cistern we share for water, a hole in the floor in another room for sanitation.
    In the end the Warden hands me a letter saying I am personal grata(?) and a bus ride back to town. Kind of had my tail between my legs all the way back to the States. And I didn’t spend an extra minute in the next three days getting to an Airport.


    • Welcome the the wonderful world of victimology. Everyone is a victim except white males of European descent and we’re the ones at fault.


    • I didn’t see his comments, so I may be missing a significant point here.
      His comment is not ridiculous on the face of it. There are many ways where the US IS responsible for foreign scofflaws.
      The first of course is the ‘sanctuary city’ ‘get out of jail free’ card for criminals from Mexico. This creates perverse incentives for crime.
      The second is the inconsistent and sometimes non-existent enforcement of your immigration laws. This entrenches corruption within your law enforcement system.
      Your Prohibition of drugs. This prohibition is responsible for drug cartels, crime lords, and criminalization of people for harming themselves, and issue the Government should treat as medical rather than criminal.
      Rewards for unlawful behaviour, especially unlawful entry, in terms of welfare and medical treatment, are contributing to foreigners breaking US laws. So yeah, unless there’s something I’m missing here, he’s absolutely correct.


  8. Nowadays haven’t most of the illegals been coached as to the magic phrases to utter in order to pretend “refugee” status? Whereupon they must be taken before a magistrate in order to have a hearing scheduled. Where they repeat the lie and get a hearing scheduled months away (to which IIRC around 80% do not show).
    Are not the lies to the federal agents felonies (viz Martha Stewart) and the lie under oath before the magistrate perjury?


  9. @Charles TM

    …Most important and often not noted in these discussion is that an illegal alien has NO CIVIL RIGHTS in the United States. No right to an attorney, no right to be Mirandized, no right to a trial, no privacy 4th Amendment rights, no 5th Amendment rights, nada. Even if a trial is required to convict for illegal entry, it is irrelevant to any deportation action….

    Presumably, you can’t decide that someone is an illegal alien until you have a trial? And at that point the defendant will have the normal civil rights conferred by the US?


  10. @ Mr Eschenbach

    …Jorge Ramos of Univision was just on TV saying that the US is partially responsible for the problem of foreign scofflaws … say what? People come here and take advantage of us, and it’s our fault?…

    This is logical. In a world obsessed with equality, it can be a crime to be too successful…


    • The nail that stands up gets hammered down.

      Or to phrase it another way “You didn’t build that” -Barak O. And if anyone is an example of that it’s him.


  11. @Mr Eschenbach

    Real border, yeah, good idea.

    Clicked on your subtle “nuthouse” link. Bad idea. Draining sinus filtered coffee from my keyboard. Good to hear I wasn’t the only one who had a little trouble coping with the ’60’s. I never heard of a Marine Corps nuthouse. I don’t think we needed one, we had Tijuana.


  12. Your bio link made me envious of so much adventure until realizing that had it been me I would likely not survived. I will say though that was some very fine writing/best short story I’ve ever read.


  13. Pingback: Always More To Learn About The Law | Skating Under The Ice | Cranky Old Crow

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