Speaking from a border port of entry in Nogales, Arizona, Sessions vowed a dramatic Justice Department crackdown on illegal immigration that would include felony charges for people who illegally enter the United States multiple times or get married in order to gain legal status.
“For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned,” Sessions said in remarks prepared for delivery. “This is a new era. This is the Trump era.”
He continued: “The lawlessness, the abdication of the duty to enforce our immigration laws, and the catch and release practices of old are over.”
A memo Sessions issued Tuesday calls for federal attorneys to consider prosecution of anyone who harbors undocumented immigrants, with a priority given to violent cases or those that involve transporting or shielding three or more undocumented immigrants. Sessions also instructed the Justice Department to pursue felony charges when applicable for immigrants who try to enter the U.S. illegally on multiple occasions.
In a policy move that could have broad implications, the attorney general asked prosecutors to consider charges for identity fraud and document theft “to the extent practicable.” The department’s attorneys also should consider felony prosecutions in cases of fraudulent marriages to obtain legal immigration status, the memo said.
The border trip and call for stiffer immigration enforcement come as the Trump administration struggles to carry out his campaign promises in the first 100 days in office. An attempt at health care reform fell flat amid a lack of support from Republicans, and the allegations of ties to Russia continue to dog the president and his advisers.
On immigration, one of Trump’s signature campaign issues, a travel ban that targets six majority-Muslim nations and suspends the refugee resettlement program largely remains frozen by litigation in federal courts from Hawaii to Virginia. And even as Sessions announced an immigration crackdown from the border, Trump’s campaign promise of a “big, beautiful” wall appeared to be on the verge of collapse.
In March, the administration asked Congress to help kick-start construction with $1.4 billion in a must-pass spending bill due by April 28, but House Speaker Paul Ryan has signaled he won’t deal with additional border spending until next year. Democrats view the border wall as a “poison pill” that would kill their support for the legislation and trigger a government shutdown.
Sessions’ trip to the border Tuesday brings the focus back to immigration, even if the border wall remains more rhetoric than reality. In his Nogales speech, Sessions stressed the dangers of criminal gangs, whose members he said “turn cities and suburbs into war zones,” “rape and kill innocent citizens” and profit from trafficking people across the border.
“Depravity and violence are their calling cards, including brutal machete attacks and beheadings,” he said in prepared remarks. “It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this filth.”
In the speech itself, Sessions omitted the phrase “against this filth.”
Sessions avoided mention of the torrent of Central American unaccompanied children and families who have arrived at the southern border in recent years, fleeing gangs and poverty in their homelands. Instead, he highlighted U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel, who he said risk their lives to regulate immigration, and local ranchers who “work the land to make an honest living.” As part of the motivation for his immigration push, Sessions referenced Kate Steinle and Grant Ronnebeck, both of whom are believed to have been killed by undocumented immigrants.
Sessions appears ready to use all the tools at his disposal to target unauthorized border crossers, according to Leon Fresco, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department under President Barack Obama. “We’ve never had this sort of zero tolerance for illegal immigration prosecutions,” Fresco said.
The aggressive approach could help lock down the border, but it could also lead to the arrest of valid asylum seekers, depending on how the new plans are implemented, he said. The memo released Tuesday doesn’t address the treatment of people who claim asylum.
“That concerns me,” Fresco said. “[The memo] could easily be interpreted to mean: ‘Prosecute as many people as you can for these things.’”
The attorney general also announced that he would streamline procedures for hiring new immigration judges to better process cases at the border. In addition to the intensified enforcement actions announced Tuesday, Trump has mandated the detention of immigration violators arrested at the border, which could place a further strain on already overburdened immigration courts, which fall under the purview of the Justice Department. Roughly half of all federal arrests in 2014 were for immigration crimes, and 93 percent occurred along the border, according to a recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Sessions said 25 judges had already been sent to detention centers along the border. He said 50 more judges would be “on the bench” this year, a figure that matches the number of judges already in the hiring pipeline. Next year, he said the courts would add 75 judges, the same number requested in Trump’s budget blueprint for fiscal year 2018, at a cost of $80 million.
Sessions said the new hiring plan “requires just as much vetting as before, but reduces the timeline, reflecting the dire need to reduce the backlogs in our immigration courts.”
As part of the Justice Department’s approach to border enforcement, the attorney general said each federal district should designate a “border security coordinator” no later than April 18. The coordinators will oversee the investigation and prosecution of the immigration-related offenses outlined in the memo released Tuesday, as well as collaborate and share information with agencies within the Homeland Security Department.
Sessions took questions from members of the media after the speech, offering his thoughts about immigration enforcement in cases where undocumented immigrant parents have U.S. citizen children. In one recent example, a Mexican woman with four citizen children asked an appeals court in Cincinnati to halt her deportation. The motion was denied Tuesday afternoon, placing her future in question.
“We want everybody to comply with the law,” Sessions said. “And because a child or a family member enters the United States lawfully doesn’t mean that others can enter the country unlawfully.”
Later in the day, Sessions delivered the keynote address at a conference organized by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in a Phoenix suburb. Sessions highlighted a part of his memo that tells federal attorneys to prioritize charges over assaulting a law enforcement officer or resisting arrest.
“If someone dares to assault one of our people in the line of duty, they will do federal time for it,” he said in remarks prepared for delivery.