Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday ordered federal prosecutors to take a “zero tolerance policy” toward illegal immigrants nabbed at the U.S.-Mexico border, saying they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent possible.
U.S. attorneys in Arizona, New Mexico, southern California and southern and west Texas were told to prosecute every person Homeland Security officers and agents catch attempting to enter the U.S. illegally, “to the extent practicable.”
“You are on the front lines of this battle,” Mr. Sessions said in a memo to the prosecutors.
The orders are a major escalation in the administration’s efforts to discourage illegal immigration, and come as the latest numbers released this week showed a more than 200 percent increase in attempts at illegal entry in March, compared to a year earlier.
Jumping the border is a misdemeanor crime, but authorities have in the past often approached lawbreakers through the civil immigration system, attempting to quickly deport them. That led to instances where some illegal immigrants would make multiple attempts each night, get caught and ousted and immediately try again.
Where a zero tolerance policy of prosecutions has been tried, however, it’s seen major successes in cutting attempts at illegal immigration — though civil rights groups have also complained about overzealous law enforcement.
Analysts say the theory behind a zero tolerance policy is that if migrants are in jail they can’t be out working — which is usually the reason they came to the U.S.
Many prosecutors are unlikely to be eager about the new orders, however. Low-level immigration cases can be tough to make, and don’t bring the public attention that drug or public corruption prosecutions bring to aspiring lawyers, former prosecutors say.
But Mr. Sessions said it’s up to U.S. attorneys to send a message about illegal immigration, particularly after Congress has failed to reform the system to reduce incentives that are enticing illegal immigrants to make the dangerous journey.
“A crisis has erupted at our Southwest Border that necessitates an escalated effort to prosecute those who choose to illegally cross our border,” Mr. Sessions said in a statement.