U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions unveiled tough new federal rules to clamp down on undocumented immigrants and deter others from entering the United States, setting the stage for a surge in immigration prosecutions.
During a visit with U.S. border officials in Nogales, Arizona, on Tuesday, Sessions sought to cast the guidelines as a needed antidote after years of lax enforcement of the U.S. immigration laws. He argued the new priorities would help to combat smuggler organizations and drug cartels that he blamed for spreading violence in the United States.
"For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned," he said. "This is a new era. This is the Trump era."
In a memo outlining the changes, Sessions instructed federal prosecutors to pursue felony charges against people who unlawfully re-enter the country, instead of charging them with misdemeanors. Prosecutors will also be required to consider harsher charges against people transporting or harboring immigrants, assaulting enforcement agents, and entering into fraudulent marriages to gain the right to U.S. residency.
In addition, Sessions directed prosecutors to charge undocumented immigrants with document fraud and aggravated identity theft, wherever possible. Identity theft carries a two-year minimum mandatory sentence, after which an undocumented person would be deported.
He also reiterated that all adults who are apprehended at the border will be detained, in compliance with Trump's executive order on border enforcement - though it is not clear that there are enough beds in detention facilities available to accommodate them yet. Trump's blueprint budget, released in March, asks for $1 billion to be directed to detention and deportation and $2 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, but it is unlikely members of Congress will allocate those amounts in the final budget.
To help tackle the immigration backlog in the court system - people often wait years to have their immigration cases heard - the Department of Justice plans to add 125 new immigration judges over the next two years. The nonprofit Human Rights First estimates 224 new immigration judges are needed just to clear the current two-and-a-half-year backlog in immigration courts.
Sessions pointed to a sharp drop in illegal crossings - a 40 percent dip from January to February this year, and a 72 percent drop in March 2017 from the year before - as evidence that Trump's deterrence strategy is already working.
But while Trump has often claimed to be dealing with "a full-fledged border crisis," immigration advocates point out that border apprehensions and illegal crossings have been trending downward for years and criminal activity along the southwest border is the lowest in the country.
Immigration experts are also wary of the broad expansion of prosecutorial priorities and warned that directing resources to prosecuting the undocumented will mean other public safety issues may be neglected.
"The fact is that increases in prosecution for illegal border crossers is going to take away resources for more serious crimes, meaning, guns, narcotics, and violent crimes," Greg Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said.
It is also unclear how the attorney general's new guidance will be implemented on the ground. "His priorities are broad enough to include even the use of a fake social security card, something that undocumented immigrants frequently need to use in order to get work," said Stephen Legomsky, former senior counsel to the Secretary of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said. "This would be a dramatic expansion of immigration-related criminal prosecutions."
Photo credit: MICHAEL B. THOMAS/Getty Images