U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced "Trump-era" prosecution priorities for illegal border crossers and those who help them at a speech on Tuesday in Nogales, Arizona.
In his announcement to border officials and the press, Sessions directed federal prosecutors to ramp up their efforts to deter transporting or harboring undocumented immigrants, repeated efforts to enter the country, and document fraud related to migrant smuggling.
He wants special priority on busting people who assault immigration and border officers.
The new push continues President Donald Trump's promises to bring more law and order to the country's immigration system. In that sense, however, Sessions' remarks on Tuesday brought new anxiety to immigrant activists.
Sessions claims that Trump's rhetoric and action have already brought results, resulting in dramatic drops in illegal border crossings.
"For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned," Sessions said. "This is a new era. This is the Trump era. The lawlessness, the abdication of the duty to enforce our immigration laws, and the catch-and-release practices of the old are over ...
"We will execute a strategy that once again secures the border, apprehends and prosecutes those criminal aliens that threaten our public safety, takes the fight to gangs like MS-13 and Los Zetas, and makes dismantlement and destruction of the cartels a high priority."
Arizonans have heard lofty promises to secure the border before.
One thing Sessions didn't talk about was the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which reimburses county sheriffs' offices and the state for the incarceration and medical costs of border crossers and illegal-immigrant criminals. Trump's budget outline released last month zeroed out SCAAP funding, which alarmed sheriffs of border counties.
Of course, Trump has already followed through on some of his promises regarding immigration — to the outrage of immigration activists worried about the separation of family members and mistreatment of hard-working, albeit undocumented, immigrants.
The new direction by the administration, according to Sessions, will come with new resources, including 50 new immigration judges on the bench this year, and 75 more in 2018. A "streamlined hiring plan" will eliminate the typical hiring timeframe of 18 to 24 months, he said.
"It requires just as much vetting as before, but reduces the timeline, reflecting the direct need to reduce the backlogs in our immigration courts," Sessions said.
Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, (LULAC), in Washington, D.C., said members of his organization were "alarmed" by Sessions' speech. Wilkes referred to reports of internal struggles at the White House to influence Trump between advisers Steve Bannon and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
"Sessions is definitely in the Bannon camp with this anti-immigrant message," Wilkes said. "They're trying to criminalize and make it a felony to pursue the American Dream."
The intent of going after people who harbor or transport undocumented immigrants is to intimidate them and increase fear among the undocumented community, he said.
Jeanne Atkinson, director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., (CLINIC), a national organization based in Maryland that helps immigrants, agreed that the priorities are disturbing. As CLINIC noted in a 2013 paper on harboring undocumented immigrants, the prohibition "applies to everyone" who might provide help.
"You could be talking about a grandma taking a grandchild to the doctor," Atkinson said.
Trump's immigration policies pander to "a certain, ugly nativism," she said. "If they really cared, they would fix the immigration system, not frighten Grandma."
A spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates the end of lax policies toward undocumented immigrants, called the latest policy guidelines "important" for the country.
"The memo outlines important steps the Trump administration is taking to enforce the immigration laws that are on the books, and applying the laws as Congress intended," FAIR spokesman Dave Ray said. "With a marked reduction in illegal entries since first taking office, the administration knows that strong talk and fair deterrence will not only reduce future illegal immigration, but also put those who are already here illegally on notice."
Following his speech in Nogales, Sessions went to Litchfield Park for a 1 p.m. scheduled meeting to address members of the International Association of the Chiefs of Police.
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The Attorney General's complete remarks as released by the Department of Justice follow, along with a copy of his guidance memo to U.S. Attorney's offices:
AG Jeff Sessions remarks on April 11, 2017:
Good morning, everyone.
Let me start by thanking the brave men and women of Customs and Border Protection, who not only served as our gracious hosts today, but who put themselves in harm’s way each day to secure our borders and protect us.
Here, along our nation’s southwest border, is ground zero in this fight. Here, under the Arizona sun, ranchers work the land to make an honest living, and law-abiding citizens seek to provide for their families.
But it is also here, along this border, that transnational gangs like MS-13 and international cartels flood our country with drugs and leave death and violence in their wake. And it is here that criminal aliens and the coyotes and the document-forgers seek to overthrow our system of lawful immigration.
Let’s stop here for a minute. When we talk about MS-13 and the cartels, what do we mean? We mean criminal organizations that turn cities and suburbs into war zones, that rape and kill innocent citizens, and who profit by smuggling poison and other human beings across our borders. Depravity and violence are their calling cards, including brutal machete attacks and beheadings.
It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this filth.
In this fight, I am here to tell you, the brave men and women of Customs and Border Protection: we hear you and we have your back. Under the President’s leadership and through his Executive Orders, we will secure this border and bring the full weight of both the immigration courts and federal criminal enforcement to combat this attack on our national security and sovereignty.
The President has made this a priority — and already we are seeing the results. From January to February of this year, illegal crossings dropped by 40 percent, which was unprecedented. Then, last month, we saw a 72 percent drop compared to the month before the President was inaugurated. That’s the lowest monthly figure for at least 17 years.
This is no accident. This is what happens when you have a President who understands the threat, who is not afraid to publicly identify the threat and stand up to it, and who makes clear to law enforcement that the leadership of their country finally has their back. Together, we will drastically reduce the danger posed by criminal aliens, gang members, and cartel henchmen.
To that end, the President and I want to do our best to arm you, and the prosecutors who partner with you, with more tools in your fight against criminal aliens. So today, I am pleased to stand here with you and announce new guidance regarding our commitment to criminal immigration enforcement. As we speak, I am issuing a document to all federal prosecutors that mandates the prioritization of such enforcement.
Starting today, federal prosecutors are now required to consider for prosecution all of the following offenses:
• The transportation or harboring of aliens. As you know too well, this is a booming business down here. No more. We are going to shut down and jail those who have been profiting off this lawlessness — people smuggling gang members across the border, helping convicted criminals re-enter this country, and preying on those who don’t know how dangerous the journey can be.
• Further, where an alien has unlawfully entered the country, which is a misdemeanor, that alien will now be charged with a felony if they unlawfully enter or attempt enter a second time and certain aggravating circumstances are present.
• Also, aliens that illegally re-enter the country after prior removal will be referred for felony prosecution — and a priority will be given to such offenses, especially where indicators of gang affiliation, a risk to public safety, or criminal history are present.
• Fourth: where possible, prosecutors are directed to charge criminal aliens with document fraud and aggravated identity theft — the latter carrying a two-year mandatory minimum sentence.
• Finally, and perhaps most importantly: I have directed that all 94 U.S. Attorneys Offices make the prosecution of assault on a federal law enforcement officer — that’s all of you — a top priority. If someone dares to assault one of our folks in the line of duty, they will do federal time for it.
To ensure that these priorities are implemented, starting today, each U.S. Attorney’s Office, whether on the border or interior, will designate an Assistant United States Attorney as the Border Security Coordinator for their District. It will be this experienced prosecutor’s job to coordinate the criminal immigration enforcement response for their respective offices.
For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned: This is a new era. This is the Trump era. The lawlessness, the abdication of the duty to enforce our immigration laws, and the catch and release practices of old are over.
In that vein, I am also pleased to announce a series of reforms regarding immigration judges to reduce the significant backlogs in our immigration courts.
Pursuant to the President’s executive order, we will now be detaining all adults who are apprehended at the border. To support this mission, we have already surged 25 immigration judges to detention centers along the border. I want to thank personally the judges who answered the call to help us with this new initiative.
In addition, we will put 50 more immigration judges on the bench this year and 75 next year. We can no longer afford to wait 18 to 24 months to get these new judges on the bench. So today, I have implemented a new, streamlined hiring plan. It requires just as much vetting as before, but reduces the timeline, reflecting the dire need to reduce the backlogs in our immigration courts.
With the President’s Executive Orders on Border Security, Transnational Criminal Organizations, and Public Safety as our guideposts, we will execute a strategy that once again secures the border; apprehends and prosecutes those criminal aliens that threaten our public safety; takes the fight to gangs like MS-13 and Los Zetas; and makes dismantlement and destruction of the cartels a top priority. We will deploy a multifaceted approach in these efforts: we are going to interdict your drugs on the way in, your money on the way out, and investigate and prosecute your trafficking networks to the fullest extent of the law.
Why are we doing this? Because it is what the duly enacted laws of the United States require. I took an oath to protect this country from all enemies, foreign and domestic. How else can we look the parents and loved ones of Kate Steinle, Grant Ronnebeck, and so many others in eye and say we are doing everything possible to prevent such tragedies from ever occurring again?
Let me finish where I started, by thanking you — the brave men and women in uniform who are at the front lines of this fight. I know we ask a tremendous amount from all of you, but know this: WE HAVE YOUR BACK and will do all we can to empower you and support you in your work.