AG Sessions Announces 'Zero Tolerance' for Illegal Border Crossings, Threatens to Separate Families

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on May 09, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Trump administration continues to talk tough on immigration. And while some of the administration's immigration reform initiatives have been met with legal setbacks, immigration enforcement officers have been aggressive in arresting, detaining, and deporting those who have entered the country unlawfully.

The next step, announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions this week, is a so-called "zero-tolerance policy" for illegal entry into the United States. "To those who wish to challenge the Trump Administration's commitment to public safety, national security, and the rule of law," Sessions said, "I warn you: illegally entering this country will not be rewarded, but will instead be met with the full prosecutorial powers of the Department of Justice." So what does that mean? And what could the new policy mean for families?

Prosecutorial Plan

Federal law already prohibits illegal entry or attempted illegal entry into the country. But prosecutors aren't required to bring criminal charges in every case, and have the discretion to not prosecute certain crimes or criminal defendants. And just as Sessions has focused his ire on sanctuary cities and states in the past, this directive appears aimed at prosecutors in his own Justice Department:

"To the Department's prosecutors, I urge you: promoting and enforcing the rule of law is vital to protecting a nation, its borders, and its citizens. You play a critical part in fulfilling these goals, and I thank you for your continued efforts in seeing to it that our laws -- and as a result, our nation -- are respected."

The DOJ's press release notes that Sessions announced a renewed commitment to criminal immigration enforcement in April last year, and this new zero-tolerance policy "directs each U.S. Attorney's Office along the Southwest Border ... to adopt a policy to prosecute all Department of Homeland Security referrals of [immigration] violations, to the extent practicable."

Fractured Families

Again, what could that mean, practically speaking? "If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It's that simple," as Sessions bluntly put it. "If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."

This threat to separate parents from children at the Mexico border is nothing new. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly confirmed DHS was considering such a plan last year to try and deter families fleeing violence and poverty in Central American countries from attempting to enter the country.

Previously, those caught attempting to enter the U.S. illegally were often simply deported without additional charges. Sessions plans to send 35 more prosecutors and 18 more immigration judges to the southwest border with the goal of "100 percent" enforcement of illegal border crossings, charging all with "improper entry by an alien" and those convicted facing up to six months in prison.

As the Los Angeles Times reports:

"The new policy is expected to send a flood of deportation cases -- and legal challenges -- into federal courts. It also could put thousands more immigrants in detention facilities and children in shelters, and is likely to strain an immigration system that has struggled to keep up with a surge in enforcement under President Trump."

If you want to know how the new immigration enforcement policy could affect you, contact an immigration attorney in your area.

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