All immigrants who cross the border illegally will be charged with a crime under a new “zero-tolerance” border-enforcement policy, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday in a crackdown that could overwhelm already-clogged detention facilities and immigration courts with hundreds of thousands of new cases.
Sessions also said that families who illegally cross the border may be separated after their arrest, with children sent to juvenile shelters while their parents are sent to adult detention facilities. Until now, border agents tried to keep parents and their children in the same detention site.
The draconian new policy is expected to send a flood of deportation cases — and legal challenges — into federal courts. It also could put thousands more immigrants in detention facilities and children in shelters, and is likely to strain an immigration system that has struggled to keep up with a surge in enforcement under President Donald Trump.
“If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple,” Sessions told a law enforcement conference in Scottsdale, Ariz. “If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you.
“If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border,” Sessions said.
Families seeking asylum and presenting themselves at official U.S. border crossings will be allowed to stay together as they seek protected status, according to a U.S. official familiar with the new policy.
But people caught crossing illegally will be charged with a crime and their children sent to refugee shelters, even as agents interview them to evaluate their asylum claims, as required by law.
Immigration activists denounced the new policy to separate parents from children, and said they expect to see it challenged in court. Past court decisions have put severe restrictions on the government’s ability to detain children for immigration violations.
“It’s clear this administration wants to use families who are fleeing violence as a pawn in a larger strategy to end immigration to the U.S.,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group.
“They’re making a decision any parents would make in rescuing their kids,” he said. “For this administration to say, we will then separate you from your child, is morally corrupt.”
The stepped-up enforcement comes during a documented shift in immigration patterns, with fewer Mexicans crossing the border to find work in the United States, and an uptick in children and families fleeing violence in Central American countries and asking for U.S. asylum.
The Trump administration has called for a change in federal immigration law to close what it terms “loopholes” that allow people who file asylum claims to be released while waiting, sometimes years, for their cases to be heard in the nation’s overloaded immigration courts.
For now, the latest iteration in immigration processing will dramatically impact Border Patrol operations on the border, and potentially require major new funding from Congress.
Individuals who cross illegally will no longer be apprehended and simply bused back over the border without charges, as the Border Patrol has done in the past, especially for people without criminal records or prior immigration violations.
Under the new policy, everyone crossing illegally will be detained and prosecuted — a vast undertaking.
So far this fiscal year, Border Patrol officers have detained about 288,000 people. But only about 30,000 of those were charged with a crime for crossing the border, and only about 12,000 were charged with the more serious crime of re-entry, which is a felony. The rest were sent back across the border.
Likewise, the administration is trying to push asylum seekers away from dangerous border crossings in the desert and along the Rio Grande, and to authorized ports of entry where they can be processed.
But many border stations are ill-equipped to take care of a surge of new cases, said Doris Meissner, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
“They are strongly incentivizing serious bottlenecks at the ports of entry, and maybe they’re doing that on purpose,” she said.
Meissner called the new policy an “overreaction,” and said the administration is using a blunt-force prosecution approach to address complicated problems in the asylum system.
Administration officials have described illegal immigration as a growing crisis that requires extraordinary new enforcement measures. The White House has sent National Guard troops to the border, sought a huge surge of Border Patrol officers, and pushed Congress — so far unsuccessfully — to appropriate billions of dollars to build a wall across most of the Southwest border.
The number of border apprehensions more than tripled in March and April, to 101,220, compared with the same two months last year. But the total is generally comparable to previous years and still below the surge of minors that overwhelmed the system in 2013.
The Trump administration is convinced that detaining more border crossers will serve as an effective deterrent. When agents in El Paso, Texas, started apprehending more families in 2017, the number of illegal crossings dropped by 64 percent, a Homeland Security official said.
The Justice Department last week announced plans to send 35 additional prosecutors to Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico to help handle the expected surge.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which handles the shelters for migrant children, also is preparing to take in many more cases, the Homeland Security official said.
The administration’s unhappiness with the system was reinforced when a caravan of more than 200 asylum seekers from Central America traveled through Mexico and arrived in Tijuana on April 29, drawing angry tweets from President Trump.
“Caravans’ coming. Republicans must go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws NOW,” he tweeted on April 1. All the people from the caravan were allowed to enter the United States to seek asylum, as the law requires.