Feds Prosecuting More Border Crossers, Analysis Shows

Part of Trump administration crackdown on illegal immigration

Attorney General Jeff Sessions
Attorney General Jeff Sessions / Getty Images
June 5, 2018

Federal prosecutions of illegal border crossers rose 60 percent in April compared to January, reflecting the Trump administration's new "zero-tolerance" policy for illegal border crossers.

This according to a new report released Monday by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. TRAC found that prosecutions of border crossings had also increased 30 percent since March, a byproduct of the April implementation of the zero-tolerance policy.

Attempted border crossings have surged in recent months, rising to more than 50,000 individuals apprehended at the southwestern border in March and April. President Donald Trump has been vocal in expressing his concerns about this surge during meetings with cabinet officials. Illegal immigration initially plummeted after Trump took office, but has since returned to heightened levels; this end of the "Trump effect" is likely prompting the president's distress.

It is this distress that likely drove Attorney General Jeff Sessions to announce that U.S. Attorneys in border districts would charge all border crossers they could. In so doing, Sessions returned to the practice of the late Bush administration, which implemented a similar zero-tolerance policy in 2005. The Obama administration initially continued this practice, before cutting back in its second term. Multiple senators had called on the Trump administration to return to zero-tolerance.

The renewed policy has proved controversial, in part because a preexisting court ruling obliges the government to separate apprehended families if the parents are referred for criminal prosecution. As the number of prosecutions increases, so too will the number of minors separated from their parents, and eventually released into the interior, where they may lose contact with the federal officials responsible for overseeing them.

Nonetheless, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has proceeded with increasing the number of individuals it refers to U.S. Attorneys for prosecution. The number of individuals actually apprehended at the border is still substantially higher than the number of people charged: TRAC estimated that DOJ prosecuted about 22 percent of all the individuals apprehended by the Border Patrol are actually referred. Still, that's an increase of about 2 percent compared to January's referral rates.

It is likely that that proportion will only increase in coming months. Also on Monday, Attorney General Sessions announced that the appointment of 311 new assistant U.S. attorneys, an almost unprecedented single-day increase in ranks. Of this group, 35 will be responsible for prosecuting immigration offenses—others will focus on violent crime, civil enforcement, and the opioid epidemic.

"Under President Trump's strong leadership, the Department of Justice is going on offense against violent crime, illegal immigration, and the opioid crisis—and today we are sending in reinforcements," Sessions said Monday. "These exceptional and talented prosecutors are key leaders in our crime fighting partnership. This addition of new Assistant U.S. Attorney positions represents the largest increase in decades."