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.
Much has been made of how this is playing out on the state level, with Arizona and Alabama among the states passing tough immigration laws.
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.