Ending catch and release immigration policy
Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared “a new era” in immigration enforcement on Tuesday, saying his prosecutors will try to bring stiffer criminal charges against repeat illegal immigrants and smugglers as part of President Trump ’s crackdown.
Mr. Sessions said his enforcement priorities will end the “catch and release” practices of the Obama administration and give the Justice Department a more active role in stemming illegal immigration.
Prosecutors should prioritize cases against smugglers and should bring felony charges against illegal immigrants who have been removed before and have sneaked back into the U.S. or have other criminal convictions on their records, according to the guidance issued by the attorney general.
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“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,” Mr. Sessions said during a visit to the U.S.- Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona. “The lawlessness, the abdication of the duty to enforce our laws, and the catch and release policies of the past are over.”
As part of a broader plan to reduce backlogs in immigration courts and to speed up the deportation process, the Justice Department will hire 125 more immigration judges over the next two years, the attorney general said.
The Bush administration pioneered a broad policy of bringing criminal charges against illegal immigrants under what was dubbed Operation Streamline. Analysts said it was effective in helping cut the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico , but it also led to clogged dockets in federal courts.
Some critics worry that Mr. Sessions’ policy could slow the federal system, and others are concerned that it will instill fear in immigrant communities without improving public safety.
“Criminalizing immigration violations among individuals who are peaceably living in and contributing to our communities only will sow fear and chaos,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “Immigration enforcement should prioritize violent criminals and traffickers.”
Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, the Democrat whose district includes the Nogales area, said Mr. Sessions’ policy diverts law enforcement from other priorities and has the potential to split families.
“Law enforcement is not a zero-sum game. Mandating federal prosecutors to focus on immigrants instead of focusing on crime means valuable resources will be tied up achieving political goals instead of keeping Americans safe,” he said. “All the while, the human impact of families split apart and efforts to criminalize innocent people continue to erode our moral character as a nation.”
Illegal entry into the U.S. has usually been charged as a misdemeanor, but Mr. Sessions’ guidelines urge prosecutors to seek felony charges for cases in which a person has a documented history of sneaking into the country.
Felony charges will be sought against those with two or more misdemeanor illegal entry convictions or at least one illegal entry conviction and another aggravating factor such as a felony criminal history, gang affiliation or prior removals from the U.S.
Prosecutors were also told to give priority to identity theft, visa or document fraud committed by illegal immigrants, and assault on law enforcement officers engaged in immigration duties.
Citing violence associated with drug cartels and the MS-13 criminal gang, Mr. Sessions said the measures are meant to reduce the danger posed by those who enter the United States illegally and commit crimes.
Immigration offenses make up more than half of all federal criminal prosecutions, according to fiscal 2016 data from the Justice Department that was analyzed by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Federal law enforcement agencies prosecuted 69,636 criminal immigration offenses during that time, down from a peak of 97,384 prosecutions in fiscal 2013 — but still far higher than the 37,529 prosecutions reported in fiscal 2006.
Federal courts in border communities struggled to handle the crush of criminal prosecutions of illegal immigrants, particularly under the federal Operation Streamline program, said Chris Rickerd, a policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Political Advocacy Department.
Without the proper resources, another increase in the number of illegal immigrants prosecuted, rather than deported administratively, has the potential to overwhelm the judicial system.