U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ramped up calls on Friday to criminally prosecute immigrants who cross illegally into the United States, adding to a barrage of statements on immigration by the administration of President Donald Trump this week.
Pointing to an upswing in border crossings to levels seen during former President Barack Obama’s tenure, Sessions said he was ordering U.S. Attorneys offices near the Southwest border to prioritize bringing cases against first-time offenders.
Once border crossers are charged with illegal entry and deported, they can be charged with a felony carrying significant jail time if they are caught crossing illegally again.
The announcement came days after Trump pledged to deploy the National Guard to assist with border operations because he has not been able to secure funding to fulfill a central campaign promise of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The United States has sent military to the border a number of times over the years.
Sessions directed the U.S. Attorney’s Offices in southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas to prosecute all the cases referred under the criminal entry statute, known as 1325, “to the extent practicable.”
The mandate followed a memo issued by Sessions in April 2017 instructing prosecutors to increase their focus on criminally charging first-time offenders as well as people with multiple entries.
Some federal prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges have expressed concerns that charging border crossers en masse is a drain on court resources.
Supporters of Session’s approach have said that criminal penalties deter repeat crossers, while detractors have said the prosecutions can deny legitimate asylum seekers the ability to properly file their claims.
“This will be assembly-line justice, where large numbers of defendants are forced through the system without adequate time to consult counsel,” Cecillia Wang from the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement.
In December 2017, a group of immigrant advocacy organizations filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Civil Rights and Civil Liberties division claiming that some immigrants being criminally prosecuted for crossing the border were being forcibly separated from their children.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the complaint.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch in Washington and Mica Rosenberg in New York Additional reporting by Reade Levinson in New York