(Published July 20, 2022) In 2016, the United States Sentencing Commission promulgated an amendment that comprehensively revised the guideline covering illegal reentry offenses—§2L1.2 (Unlawfully Entering or Remaining in the United States). The amendment, Amendment 802, became effective November 1, 2016, and represented the most comprehensive revision of a major guideline in the last two decades. This report examines the impact of Amendment 802 by looking back at sentencings under §2L1.2 over the last ten fiscal years. The report first describes the concerns leading to the amendment, including that §2L1.2’s 12- and 16-level increases were overly severe and led to variances, and that using the “categorical approach” to apply enhancements was overly complex, resource intensive, and increased litigation and uncertainty. After outlining the changes made by Amendment 802, the report assesses its impact on guideline application for §2L1.2 offenders and on appeals involving §2L1.2.
Over the last ten fiscal years, immigration offenders have represented either the highest number or second-highest number of offenders sentenced annually. The vast majority of immigration offenders were sentenced under §2L1.2.
Amendment 802 to the Guidelines Manual ameliorated concerns about the severity of §2L1.2’s enhancements.
- While variance rates for §2L1.2 offenders remained largely consistent before and after the amendment, courts imposed sentences within the applicable guideline range at a higher rate on average (66.0%) in the five fiscal years after the amendment than the five fiscal years before the amendment (56.6%). Furthermore, the difference between the average guideline minimum and the average sentence imposed decreased from at least three months before the amendment to no more than one month between fiscal years 2017 and 2020, and slightly over two months in fiscal year 2021.
These sentencing trends likely are attributable to the decreasing severity of the sentencing enhancements applicable to offenders sentenced under §2L1.2. The number of offenders who received sentencing increases of 12 or more offense levels decreased substantially from 26,094 in the five fiscal years before the amendment to 5,497 in the five fiscal years after the amendment. The average sentencing increase similarly decreased from seven to four offense levels.
Amendment 802 significantly simplified guideline application and reduced appeals.
- In the five fiscal years before the amendment, 31,824 offenders sentenced under §2L1.2 (37.1%) received a sentencing enhancement that potentially required courts to analyze predicate offenses using the categorical approach. That number decreased considerably to only 59 offenders (0.1%) in the five fiscal years after the amendment.
- After Amendment 802, the number of opinions on §2L1.2 appeals decreased by 90 percent, from 239 in fiscal year 2017 to 24 in fiscal year 2021. Notably, this decline occurred even while the number of immigration sentencings rose steadily from fiscal year 2017 to a ten-year high in fiscal year 2019. By contrast, before the amendment, appellate courts issued 249 opinions on §2L1.2 appeals in fiscal year 2016 alone, and two-thirds of the appeals raised application issues relating to the categorical approach.