The Trump administration said Monday it will now pursue criminal charges against every migrant nabbed jumping the U.S.-Mexico border, putting serious teeth behind President Trump’s goal of stiffening immigration enforcement.
While most border jumpers will face charges for illegally entering the U.S., parents who bring their children with them as they sneak across could face smuggling charges, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said. That could mean they will be separated from their children while they await their trials — and serve sentences.
“Our goal is to have the whole world know this border is not open. Don’t come unlawfully,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said while standing at the border in San Diego, alongside U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement chief Thomas D. Homan.
Prosecutions have long been the exception rather than the rule, with most people who jump the border put into civil deportation proceedings.
But illegal entry is a misdemeanor crime and attempting to sneak back in after a previous deportation is a felony. Mr. Homan and Mr. Sessions said it’s time the government start treating them as such.
Immigrant-rights activists reacted with horror at the prospect of enforcing those laws, and particularly the prospect that illegal immigrants could have to be separated from their children when they end up in jail. Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights, called it “by far the most wicked and cruel” decision Mr. Trump has made on immigration.
“The capricious and ruthless nature of this administration’s immigration policy against undocumented and lawful immigrants is clearly visible when even the most vulnerable of the vulnerable — children — become targets,” she said. “This policy is nothing more than red meat to an insatiable anti-immigrant base.”
But Mr. Homan said it’s the migrants testing the system, jumping the border rather than applying to come legally, who are to blame for the separation. He said all parents arrested for crimes are separated from their children, and immigration crimes are no different.
While merely being in the U.S. without permission is not a criminal offense, jumping the border is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. And attempting to sneak in after having been ousted is a felony that can draw up to two years in prison. If someone was deported because of a major criminal charge, sneaking back in can draw a 10-year sentence.
The get-tough move will be a major test for the federal prosecutors and courts that could see caseloads surge as they deal with what could be thousands of new cases each month.
But it’s likely to thrill Border Patrol agents who had begged for the government to impose serious consequences on illegal immigrants, for whom crossing the border, getting deported and trying again is just a part of their way of life.
The Washington Times reported earlier this year on the record-holder from 2000 to 2015 — a migrant who was deported 44 times during that period. Migrants with more than a dozen deportations on their records are not unusual. And the illegal immigrant who shot and killed Kate Steinle in 2015 had been deported five times.
Border Patrol agents and security experts say detention is critical. Most illegal immigrants come to take jobs or be with their families, and if they are in detention or prison either before or after their attempt to jump the border, they’re denied the fruits of their illegal activity, and are less likely to make the attempt in the first place, the experts say.
Homeland Security says test cases have shown prosecuting illegal immigrants works.
Authorities in El Paso in 2017 began to prosecute people who were coming across as families, and the number of people making the attempt dropped. After the prosecution program was “paused,” the numbers shot up again, Homeland Security says.
The families — and many other illegal immigrants — are increasingly taking advantage of generous U.S. asylum laws. Even those who illegally jump the border will often claim asylum once they’re nabbed by the Border Patrol.
About two-thirds of all asylum claims lodged with U.S. Customs and Border Protection last year came between the ports of entry, meaning people jumped the border, were caught, and then asked for asylum.
Homeland Security said those migrants, if they jump the border, will be prosecuted for illegal entry while their asylum cases proceed, just like other border jumpers.