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Migrants from majority-Muslim countries were unequally imprisoned in Del Rio, Texas

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Del Rio, Texas, federal prosecutors have charged more than 200 migrants who crossed the border with violating an obscure law. And here's what's odd. Even though less than 5% of the people who cross the U.S.-Mexico border are from Muslim-majority countries, an LA Times investigation finds that more than 60% of the people charged in these cases are from those countries - places like Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and Mali. Journalist Hamed Aleaziz did this reporting for the LA Times. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

HAMED ALEAZIZ: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: What is this almost-forgotten law that people are being prosecuted under?

ALEAZIZ: Yeah. It's called 1459, and it basically criminalizes anybody who crosses the border at not a formal checkpoint, like a port of entry, and doesn't report their arrival. It really stretches back to the late 1980s and was aimed at drug trafficking, not controlling, necessarily, migration and asylum-seekers.

SHAPIRO: And people who are prosecuted under this law were, in many cases, seeking asylum in the U.S. Instead, they wound up pleading guilty and landing in federal custody. You tell the story of two men from Afghanistan who crossed the border and then surrendered to Customs and Border Protection. What happened to them?

ALEAZIZ: These men ended up spending upwards of eight months in federal criminal custody. One of these men said, at one point, while they were, you know, waiting to go in for a hearing in their case, they looked around at the others who were charged with 1459 and the other individuals who were asylum-seekers from Iran, Afghanistan and other Muslim-majority countries. And they looked around, and they said, you know, why are we the only ones being charged with this? Why are we the only ones being detained like this? It was a harrowing experience for these individuals. And they still, to this day, are confused about, you know, why this happened to them.

SHAPIRO: Well, when you asked federal law enforcement officials in Texas that question - why is this disproportionately being used against people from Muslim-majority countries? - what answer did you get?

ALEAZIZ: Officials said that they, you know, prosecute cases based on the information that they have. And, you know, they really didn't address the underlying data and the concerns that advocates and their attorneys and the men involved have.

SHAPIRO: So you weren't able to get a clear answer from the people enforcing this law, but do you have a sense of what the reason might be?

ALEAZIZ: You know, we don't know. I think the circumstances are quite interesting. I mean, the federal government has long been concerned about potential terrorism from Muslim-majority countries and especially any issues at the southern border. That has been a focus. You know, obviously, our federal government has been focused on terrorism for decades. So there's extra emphasis on, you know, individuals from Muslim-majority countries generally. But one thing is clear - is that, you know, after we went to the government with our preliminary data earlier this spring, they stopped charging 1459 in Del Rio, Texas.

SHAPIRO: Well, what does it tell you that when you presented this data to the government, the prosecution stopped?

ALEAZIZ: Well, it certainly raises some questions. I think it's important to note that while the 1459 prosecutions did stop in Del Rio, there has been a shift to that more typical, you know, more historically commonly used charge - illegal entry, 1325 - in Del Rio. And similarly, around 50% of the individuals being charged are from Muslim-majority countries. Many individuals are receiving top end sentences of six months - the max. So there seems to be some form of an effort here to continue prosecutions, just not with that really obscure law.

SHAPIRO: That's LA Times reporter Hamed Aleaziz. Thanks a lot.

ALEAZIZ: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF DE LA SOUL SONG, "MEMORY OF... (US) (FEAT. ESTELLE AND PETE ROCK)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Patrick Jarenwattananon
Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.