SAN DIEGO—Anyone who is caught crossing the southwest border illegally will now be referred to the Justice Department for prosecution.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to the San Diego border on May 7 to make the announcement.
“Today, we are here to send a message to the world, that we are not going to let this country be overwhelmed,” Sessions said from Border Field State Park, right by the fence separating the United States and Mexico.
“If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. 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 may be separated from you, as required by law. If you make false statements to an immigration officer or file a fraudulent asylum claim, that’s a felony. If you help others to do so, that’s a felony, also. You’re going to jail.”
Sessions made the announcement five days after he said he was sending an extra 35 prosecutors and 18 extra immigration judges to the southwest border.
“That will be about a 50 percent increase in the number of immigration judges who will be handling asylum claims,” he said.
The efforts are part of the Justice Department’s “zero tolerance” policy, which came into effect on April 6, after a jump in illegal crossings was reported by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
DHS reported a 203 percent increase in illegal border crossings from March 2017 to March 2018 and a 37 percent increase from February 2018 to March 2018—the largest month-to-month increase since 2011.
April reports show the numbers have plateaued at around 51,000 apprehensions. However, it’s a huge jump from last April, which saw just 15,000 illegal immigrants apprehended. The 51,000 includes 4,300 unaccompanied minors, who do not get prosecuted, and children within family units, who are also exempt from prosecution.
“I have no doubt that many of those crossing our border illegally are leaving behind difficult situations. But we cannot take everyone on this planet who is in a difficult situation,” Sessions said. He cited a 2012 Gallup poll, which found that 150 million people around the world would like to immigrate to the United States.
The zero tolerance policy means all U.S. attorney’s offices along the southwest border must prosecute for offenses under 8 U.S.C. Section 1325(a), which prohibits both attempted illegal entry and illegal entry into the United States by an alien.
“The recent increase in aliens illegally crossing our southwest border requires an updated approach,” Sessions said in the April 6 memorandum to federal prosecutors.
“Past prosecution initiatives in certain districts … led to a decrease in illegal activities in those districts. We must continue to execute effective policies to meet new challenges.”
Tom Homan, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s deputy director, joined Sessions in San Diego for the announcement.
He addressed reports that accused the DHS of creating a new policy to separate families that cross the border illegally or claim asylum.
Homan clarified that DHS does not have a blanket policy to separate families, and the existing policy has always separated families under two situations.
“One, when we can’t establish that it’s the parent and [therefore] that child is being trafficked. Children have been abused by alien smuggler organizations—we have numerous cases about that—so we need to ensure that person claiming to be a parent is a parent,” he said.
“We’ve got intelligence that alien smuggling organizations are making children available to single adults so that they can come and claim to be a family unit and not be detained.”
Homan said children have been discovered to have crossed the border several times with adults claiming to be the parent.
“The second issue when we separate is when someone is prosecuted. Every law enforcement agency in this country separates parents from children when they are arrested for a crime,” he said.
However, Homan said, under the new zero tolerance policy, more prosecutions, and therefore more separations, will occur.
Sessions said only the parents are subject to prosecution.
“This is just the way the world works. The parents are subject to prosecution, while children may not be. So if we do our duty and prosecute those cases, then children inevitably, for a period of time, might be in different conditions, being held by Health and Human Services rather than the U.S. Marshals office,” he said.
Sessions said people who claim asylum are not exempt from prosecution if they cross the border illegally, rather than entering at a port of entry.
The asylum system is rife with fraud, and the administration has been working on ways to close loopholes. However, without legislative fixes from Congress, increasing prosecutions and moving more judges to expedite claims is a way to try to stem the flow.
Sessions said the number of asylum claims has increased tenfold in the last 10 years.
“Many of those claims are not justified—only about 20 percent are being approved by the judges after hearings,” he said. “So we will send more judges so that we can proceed with those cases faster. We don’t want to separate families, but we don’t want families to come to the border illegally and attempt to enter this country improperly. We urge them not to do so.”
Sophia Fang contributed to this report.