May 10, 2018 500 AM
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Monday that the Justice Department will begin prosecuting every person who illegally crosses into the United States along the Southwest border, a hard-line policy shift expected to focus in particular on migrants traveling with children, the Washington Post reports.
In a speech to law enforcement officials in Scottsdale, Arizona, Sessions said the Department of Homeland Security will begin referring such cases to the Justice Department for prosecution and that federal prosecutors will “take on as many of those cases as humanly possible until we get to 100 percent.”
“If you cross the Southwest border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you,” Sessions said, according to a transcript of his remarks. “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.”
DHS officials say they have seen a significant increase in illegal border crossings over the past year, including a rise in the number of families and unaccompanied children. In the past month, Border Patrol officers say they have encountered more than 50,000 immigrants trying to enter the United States. From April 2017 to April 2018, the number of apprehensions and “inadmissible” border crossings tripled, according to DHS.
Advocates for migrants have said that most are fleeing violence in Central America and should be treated as asylum seekers, not criminals.
Senior immigration and border officials called for the increased prosecutions last month in a confidential memo to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. They said filing criminal charges against migrants, including parents traveling with children, would be the “most effective” way to tamp down on illegal border crossings.
The so-called “zero-tolerance” measure announced Monday could split up thousands of families because children are not allowed in criminal jails. Until now, most families apprehended crossing the border illegally have been released to await civil deportation hearings.
The Trump administration piloted this approach in the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico, between July and November.