Jumping the border in Singapore is punishable by six months in prison — and not less than three strokes with a cane.
In Russia, it can earn you up to two years in a prison labor camp.
Pakistan goes as high as 10 years in prison, while India allows for up to eight years behind bars for those who sneak across its boundaries.
It’s a far cry from the U.S., where illegal entry is a misdemeanor, with a maximum of six months in jail. In reality, most of those who are prosecuted — and only about 1 in 5 border jumpers are — are sentenced to time served and are out within days.
The U.S. has one of the world’s weaker laws for illegal entry, according to the data in a study by the Library of Congress, which surveyed statutes in more than 160 nations and released its findings amid a heated debate over whether America’s penalties are too stiff.
The debate is being driven by the Democratic presidential candidates, some of whom have argued that the U.S. should eliminate the criminal penalty altogether. The data shows that’s a bad idea, said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter immigration controls.
DOCUMENT: How other countries deal with border jumpers
“Illegal immigration is a crime in almost every nation because regulating immigration is key to maintaining national sovereignty and identity, and citizens and leaders of every nation place a high value on that,” Ms. Vaughan said. “There are good reasons why almost every other country in the world has similar criminal penalties, and we shouldn’t flog people over it, but we do need the tools of arrest and detention to deal with the problem.”
In the U.S., illegal entry is criminalized under 8 US Code Section 1325, “improper entry by alien,” which calls for a fine or imprisonment of up to six months, or both. Doing it a second time can earn a two-year sentence.
That is in addition to the civil penalty for being in the country without authorization, for which the result is deportation.
Those policies are in line with laws in Canada and the United Kingdom, which also impose six-month maximum sentences on illegal entry, but, like the U.S., usually just deport border jumpers instead.
A dozen other countries — including Iceland, Jordan and Guatemala — also have maximum six-month sentences, the Library of Congress reported.
China has perhaps the most complex laws, ranging from short detention and deportation to years in prison, depending on the circumstances.
Italy’s basic penalty is a fine, but in aggravated cases illegal entry can earn up to 15 years in prison, the researchers found.
Being armed, threatening to use force, inflicting damage or arriving as a group can earn heightened penalties in some places. But entering to claim asylum is often specifically exempted.
Several dozen countries lack any criminal penalties, the researchers said, using deportation or expulsion but no possibility of jail time.
That’s particularly true in Latin American countries, where Mexico, Brazil, El Salvador, Colombia and Venezuela don’t envision time behind bars, the researchers found.
That is the direction some Democratic presidential candidates want to go.
Obama Cabinet secretary Julian Castro has driven the decriminalization debate. He used the first presidential primary debate in June to issue a challenge to fellow candidates to join him in repealing Section 1325.
Mr. Castro said the six-month misdemeanor penalty, which has been part of the law for decades, has been abused by the Trump administration, which used it last year as part of its zero tolerance border policy.
Before that policy, only about 20% of border jumpers were prosecuted for illegal entry. The rest were put into deportation proceedings. But under zero tolerance, the rate of prosecutions grew to about 50%, Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan told Congress in July.
Mr. Castro’s call drew praise from immigrant rights activists, who said he had set a new standard for the rest of the Democratic field. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, joined his call.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris embraced Mr. Castro’s call but then appeared to retreat from that stance. She said she didn’t want to decriminalize illegal entry but didn’t think it should be a crime.
Mr. Castro’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday about the data showing the U.S. already at the low end of penalties.
His idea also has shown little traction on Capitol Hill. Indeed, there has been more movement in the other direction. Republicans introduced a bill last year that would have heightened the penalty for illegal entry by turning it into a felony punishable by one year in prison.
That legislation did not advance out of a subcommittee.