Last week, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions order federal prosecutors on the southwest border to adopt a “zero-tolerance” policy against those who illegally enter, or attempts to illegally enter, the country. He warns that illegally entering the United States will be “met with the full prosecutorial powers of the Department of Justice (DOJ).”
This directive instructs all border prosecutors to prosecute all Department of Homeland Security referrals for alleged violations of federal immigration illegal-entry laws. According to Sessions, not only is the goal to develop more immigration cases, but to put an end to the “illegality in [the] immigration system.” He urges offices to identify and request more resources if the new policy requires it.
Although being in this country illegally is a civil offense, improper entry is a federal misdemeanor punishable by a maximum prison sentence of six months. The conviction can lead to a felony if immigrants return and potentially prevent them from obtaining asylum.
Criminally prosecuting immigrants allows the government to hold them in federal prisons, where there is more capacity compared to immigrant detention centers, before deporting them after they have served their sentence. Unfortunately, may result in the separation of families since children cannot be held in prison, necessitating their placement in foster care and allowing the government to detain parents until they are deported.
The announcement came hours before President Donald Trump signed a memo ordering the end of so-called “catch and release,” in which immigrants are freed to wait out their cases in the backlogged civil immigration courts. Trump ordered government agencies to ensure that apprehended immigrants are imprisoned, including reporting steps taken to allocate money to build detention centers near the border and using military sited to hold immigrants.
As of February, however, there are over 684,000 pending cases awaiting immigration court.