Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared “a new era” in immigration enforcement on Tuesday, saying his prosecutors will try to bring stiffer criminal charges against repeat illegal immigrants and smugglers as part of President Trump’s crackdown.
Mr. Sessions said his enforcement priorities will end the “catch and release” practices of the Obama administration and give the Justice Department a more active role in stemming illegal immigration.
Prosecutors should prioritize cases against smugglers and should bring felony charges against illegal immigrants who have been removed before and have sneaked back into the U.S. or have other criminal convictions on their records, according to the guidance issued by the attorney general.
“For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned: This is a new era. This is the Trump era,” Mr. Sessions said during a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona. “The lawlessness, the abdication of the duty to enforce our laws, and the catch and release policies of the past are over.”
As part of a broader plan to reduce backlogs in immigration courts and to speed up the deportation process, the Justice Department will hire 125 more immigration judges over the next two years, the attorney general said.
The Bush administration pioneered a broad policy of bringing criminal charges against illegal immigrants under what was dubbed Operation Streamline. Analysts said it was effective in helping cut the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico, but it also led to clogged dockets in federal courts.
Some critics worry that Mr. Sessions’ policy could slow the federal system, and others are concerned that it will instill fear in immigrant communities without improving public safety.
“Criminalizing immigration violations among individuals who are peaceably living in and contributing to our communities only will sow fear and chaos,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “Immigration enforcement should prioritize violent criminals and traffickers.”
Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, the Democrat whose district includes the Nogales area, said Mr. Sessions’ policy diverts law enforcement from other priorities and has the potential to split families.
“Law enforcement is not a zero-sum game. Mandating federal prosecutors to focus on immigrants instead of focusing on crime means valuable resources will be tied up achieving political goals instead of keeping Americans safe,” he said. “All the while, the human impact of families split apart and efforts to criminalize innocent people continue to erode our moral character as a nation.”
Illegal entry into the U.S. has usually been charged as a misdemeanor, but Mr. Sessions’ guidelines urge prosecutors to seek felony charges for cases in which a person has a documented history of sneaking into the country.
Felony charges will be sought against those with two or more misdemeanor illegal entry convictions or at least one illegal entry conviction and another aggravating factor such as a felony criminal history, gang affiliation or prior removals from the U.S.
Prosecutors were also told to give priority to identity theft, visa or document fraud committed by illegal immigrants, and assault on law enforcement officers engaged in immigration duties.
Citing violence associated with drug cartels and the MS-13 criminal gang, Mr. Sessions said the measures are meant to reduce the danger posed by those who enter the United States illegally and commit crimes.
Immigration offenses make up more than half of all federal criminal prosecutions, according to fiscal 2016 data from the Justice Department that was analyzed by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Federal law enforcement agencies prosecuted 69,636 criminal immigration offenses during that time, down from a peak of 97,384 prosecutions in fiscal 2013 — but still far higher than the 37,529 prosecutions reported in fiscal 2006.
Federal courts in border communities struggled to handle the crush of criminal prosecutions of illegal immigrants, particularly under the federal Operation Streamline program, said Chris Rickerd, a policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Political Advocacy Department.
Without the proper resources, another increase in the number of illegal immigrants prosecuted, rather than deported administratively, has the potential to overwhelm the judicial system.
“There is an enormous cost to the criminal justice system,” Mr. Rickerd said. “If you don’t have the defense capabilities and judicial capacity, you are not going to achieve anything but a long delay in waiting for your case.”
Mr. Sessions’ announcement included his commitment to hire 125 additional immigration judges but made no mention of any extra resources to handle any uptick in the number of criminal cases.
President Trump’s budget plan called for 60 more border enforcement prosecutors and 40 deputy U.S. marshals to help catch and transport illegal immigrants charged with crimes.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on whether other resources might be necessary.
“The president’s budget blueprint made clear the department’s commitment to public safety, combating violent crime, drug trafficking and illegal immigration,” said spokesman Ian Prior. “There will be additional details in the rollout of agency budgets this spring, but no further details at this time.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday that the administration “is committed to ending the practice of smuggling gangs and cartels across the border that flood our country with drugs and violence.”
During his address at the U.S.-Mexico border, Mr. Sessions said Mr. Trump’s tough talk on immigration was already having a deterrent effect.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics show a decline in the number of people caught trying to illegally cross the border since Mr. Trump took office. In March, nearly 17,000 illegal border crossers were apprehended, a 30 percent decline from February and a 64 percent drop from February 2016.
Apprehensions are considered a yardstick for overall crossings, so a drop signals that the illegal flow across the border is down.
That has left some administration critics wondering whether Mr. Trump’s border wall is needed.
Homeland Security spokesman David Lapan said plans are still on track.
“We still have an issue of people coming into the country unlawfully, so there’s still a desire to secure the southwest border. And we still have a directive from the president to do something, so DHS will continue to move forward,” the spokesman said.
Although the Trump administration has taken credit for the apparent drop in illegal immigration, advocacy groups said it doesn’t deserve it.
The America’s Voice Education Fund said border apprehensions had been trending downward for years — long before Mr. Trump won the election in November.
Frank Sharry, the group’s executive director, called Mr. Sessions’ visit to the border “grandstanding.”
“It’s yet another example of the Trump administration treating all immigrants as threats and as criminals,” he said. “This is the smokescreen they use to justify their efforts to deport millions, to keep people out of the country and, ultimately, to try to remake the racial and ethnic composition of America.”
⦁ Dave Boyer and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.