Matt York, Associated Press
In this Sept. 28, 2010 photo, a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent drives along the international border fence near Nogales, Ariz. The penalty for entering the United States without papers is stiffer than the penalty for many other crimes, including child sexual exploitation.

Around the county, thousands of American families are being separated from one another as a matter of U.S. immigration laws. An article by Susan Ferriss for the Center for Public Integrity outlines three families' stories.

Ferriss tells the story of T.J. and Maythe Barbour. With her infant daughter strapped to her back, it took Maythe several attempts before she was able to successfully cross the border into the United States from Mexico. Though she did not have a work permit, she was about to obtain employment at Burger King. It was there that she met T.J. The two married and began work on Maythe's application for legal residency.

That's where things got complicated. They found out that because Maythe had entered the United States illegally, she would be punished with mandatory deportation and be barred from even entering the country for 20 years. She lives just outside Tijuana with her daughter. T.J. lives in San Deigo with their son. He travels to Mexico on the weekends so they can be together as a family.

In a discussion about Ferriss' story, John Lee of Open Borders, a pro-immigration blog, compared mandatory sentences for immigration violations to other crimes. From his post:

"Somehow, we see immigrating illegally — as something that merits the toughest, most inflexible, inhumane punishment possible short of physical harm. The mandatory sentence for people who have been unlawfully present in the U.S. for over 1 year is deportation for 10 years. Those who have crossed the border unlawfully more than once can be barred for life."

To put those penalties in perspective, consider the penalty for an individual convicted of sexually exploiting a child, argues Lee. "The median prison term for someone convicted of child sex exploitation in the U.S. is a little over five years," he wrote.

A 2006 report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics shows Lee is not flubbing the numbers. Its statistics show that the median prison term for sex-abuse offenses is 70 months (5.8 years), followed by 63 months for child pornography (5.25) and 60 months (5 years) for sex transportation. The Department of Justice notes that between 1996 and 2006, median prison terms for these offenses increased significantly.

The average prison sentence for a person who commits murder, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics, is 241 months (or 20 years). This means that the penalty for murder and the penalty for entering the United States illegally are the same. Except they aren't. An individual sentenced to murder in the United States will only serve 147 months (12.25 years) in prison.