Date of Award

Spring 2016

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Sociology/Criminal Justice

Committee Director

Randy Gainey

Committee Member

Scott R. Maggard

Committee Member

Jeffery T. Ulmer


Though frequently disadvantaged across a plethora of various institutions throughout history, noncitizens have become increasingly targeted with recent political rhetoric refocusing on immigration as a threat to homeland security. The latent effects of this renewed political platform has been a heightened awareness of the “immigration threat” that has infiltrated the criminal justice system.

Previous research has found that citizenship status is related to sentencing outcomes despite the identification of this variable as extralegal by the USSC, though research remains largely divided on the extent and manifestation of this disparity. Furthermore, only a very few of these studies have examined potential mediating and moderating effects within noncitizens. Because political rhetoric emphasizes “illegal immigrants from Mexico,” ethnicity, country of origin, and documentation status are likely to influence sentencing outcomes. This dissertation is the first known study to control for each of these potential mediators in the analysis of noncitizen federal sentencing disparities.

Because the emphasis on foreign populations is not immutable but rather fluctuates according to the existing sociocultural context, aggregated sentencing data fails to acknowledge nuanced patterns of disadvantage, often masking disparities. This study is among the first to examine the effects of citizenship status on federal sentencing outcomes over time and across districts and is the first study to do so while controlling for spatial autocorrelation. Multilevel modeling techniques are employed to examine cases nested within sentencing districts. A queen contiguity spatial weight matrix is included to control for geographic proximity. Finally, a series of growth models are used to examine longitudinal patterns in sentencing outcomes across districts over time.

The results of this study support the contention that noncitizens receive more severe sentencing outcomes across numerous outcomes including incarceration, prison alternatives for eligible offenders, sentence length, and departures. Ethnicity, country of origin, and documentation status were also frequently found to be significant predictors of sentencing severity though fail to explain citizenship effects in their entirety. Sentencing outcomes have fluctuated over time, with sentencing outcomes demonstrating increased severity. Furthermore, variations in district caseloads and offender demographics demonstrate unique effects on noncitizen sentencing outcomes, though not always in the anticipated direction.