Stymied by Congress on immigration, President Trump and his top aides have taken matters into their own hands with a series of executive actions over the last week designed to push back against a renewed surge of border jumpers.
National Guard vehicles and equipment were deployed to the border Friday, just days after Mr. Trump’s orders, and troops will reach Arizona and Texas this week — part of an overall mobilization the president said could reach 4,000 people. Troops are slated to perform aerial surveillance, construction duties and other support for the Border Patrol, but will not be directly involved in policing the border.
The president also signed a memo directing his administration to try to end the practice of “catch-and-release,” which sees many illegal immigrants nabbed at the border set free in the interior of the country, where they disappear into the shadows along with the 11 million other illegal immigrants already here.
And 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.
“You are on the front lines of this battle,” Mr. Sessions said in a memo to the prosecutors in southwestern border districts, telling them they have a national security duty to perform.
Jumping the border is a misdemeanor crime punishable by up to six months in prison, 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.
Ending catch-and-release, meanwhile, has long been an elusive goal for the past two administrations.
Agents complain that after they arrest illegal immigrants they have to process them and then set many them free in the U.S., with the hope that they return for a deportation hearing some time in the future.
Mr. Trump called for illegal immigrants nabbed at the border to be held in custody, to the fullest extent possible. He also ordered more asylum officers to head to detention centers so they can rule on cases faster, calculating that if they can clear the cases they can send undeserving migrants home without having to release them.
In a memo to his attorney general and secretaries of the State, Defense, Homeland and Health and Human Services departments, Mr. Trump also demanded regular updates on progress, and told them to submit requests for any new resources they need.
Still, Mr. Trump has seemed conflicted about the situation on the border.
He continues to tout a drop in the flow of people that took place in the earlier months of his administration in 2017 — even though his top aides say the reason they need to deploy the National Guard is because the numbers have gotten bad.
Indeed, the number of illegal immigrants nabbed at the southwest border in March was triple the amount from March 2017.
Mr. Trump last week said the situation vindicates his rhetoric from the 2016 campaign, when he said Mexico sends bad elements to the U.S. — including rapists.
Immigrant-rights advocates said the president exposed his racism.
“By this point, there is no mistaking or explaining away who this man is or what he believes,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice. “President Trump proudly celebrated the racism of his origin story as a presidential candidate.”
Mr. Trump had entered 2018 looking to forge a deal with congressional Democrats that would have included legalization of as many as 1.8 million illegal immigrant Dreamers in exchange for security enhancements including his border wall, new limits on the chain of family migration, and an end to the visa lottery.
Offering citizenship was a non-starter for many Republicans, though, and Democrats rejected the security enhancements and limits on legal migration, saying they chiefly wanted to see an amnesty for Dreamers without too many strings attached.
That left Mr. Trump in the middle, having angered some of his political base without gaining anything from Democrats to show for it. He has responded in recent days by saying he’s no longer willing to deal on Dreamers, and is instead looking to focus on security.