Sessions Announces Criminal Charges Against Suspected Caravan Members

Immigration officials begin to process some 150 asylum-seekers who reached San Diego border

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The Justice Department is acting quickly against suspected members of the so-called "caravan" of immigrants who allegedly illegally entered the country, escalating a showdown with immigration activists who are trying to rally support for Central American asylum-seekers aiming to gain entry to the United States at the San Diego border.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions late Monday night announced that the Justice Department has filed criminal charges against 11 different suspected members of the caravan, alleging that the immigrants illegally entered the country.

"When respect for the rule of law diminishes, so too does our ability to protect our great nation, its borders and its citizens," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. "The United States will not stand by as our immigration laws are ignored and our nation's safety is jeopardized."

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Sessions said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California Adam Braverman should be commended for "quickly filing illegal entry charges for individuals apprehended along the southwestern border."

"We will continue to work with our partners in each U.S. attorney's offices to aggressively pursue prosecutions of criminal illegal entry," Sessions said.

Braverman, in a statement, said the American dream has "beckoned immigrants from across the globe because of the promise that prosperity and success are within reach for all."

He praised immigrants for contributing their "voices and perspectives to make up our uniquely American experience," but stressed that the foundation for the American dream, "which allows our democracy to flourish," is a "commitment to the rule of law."

"These 11 defendants face charges now because they believed themselves to be above the law," Braverman said. "Those seeking entry to the United States must pledge fidelity to the law, not break them, or else face criminal prosecution."

The announcement comes after the so-called caravan of immigrants from Central America—which the Trump administration has been closely monitoring since it started March 25 in the Mexican city of Tapachula, near the Guatemala border—arrived at the San Diego border with Mexico over the weekend and tried to gain entry at the San Ysidro official port of entry in San Diego.

Immigration advocates, including Amnesty International, Pueblo Sin Fronteras, and several immigration lawyers, held press conferences or gave statements to the press over the last two days in an attempt to persuade the United States to allow the group's entry into the United States.

President Trump has repeatedly decried U.S. immigration policies that allow people requesting asylum to be released from custody while their claims wend their way through the courts, which can take several months to a year.

Vice President Mike Pence on Monday visited a U.S. Customs and Border Protection office accused "open-border activists" of exploiting immigrants seeking asylum in the United States to try to exert pressure on U.S. immigration authorities and the Trump administration to allow the group to enter the country.

During the visit to the CBP office in El Centro, Calif., Pence signaled that U.S. immigration authorities would not bow to any pressure but instead would abide by the law and continue processing the group of roughly 150 remaining asylum-seekers into the country's immigration detention facilities.

Pence also said U.S. authorities would seek legal action against anyone who violates immigration law by illegally entering the country without following the normal asylum process or lies to authorities about their reasons for seeking asylum.

Pence told border-patrol agents and officials that he’s grateful for their work, especially over the weekend, in ensuring that the "caravan" of immigrations from Honduras and other Central American countries are "dealt with in manner consistent with the law, and that our laws are enforced."

Last week, Trump pledged to stop the caravan but seemed to adjust those comments on Monday, arguing that those in the caravan who arrived at the California border with Mexico are testing America's generosity.

"We're doing the best we can with it," Trump told reporters on Monday. "But we have to have changes in Congress—we need a wall," he said.

Pence, during his visit to the border Monday, said he and Trump are "absolutely committed" to the construction of a border wall despite setbacks but also to "reforming our immigration laws."

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen last week instructed individuals in the caravan to seek asylum in other "safe" countries, such as Mexico, instead of continuing traveling to the U.S. border.

She also warned that anyone making a false case for asylum to U.S. immigration authorities, or anyone assisting them in making false statements, would be referred to U.S. law enforcement authorities for prosecution.

Advocates for the immigrants said many of the Central American citizens who joined the "caravan" were fleeing violence in their home countries.

Alex Mensing, an organizer with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, told the Los Angeles Times that the families had fled their countries because of extreme violence or dire circumstances there. He accused the U.S. government of exaggerating capacity issues in order to deny asylum-seekers their "due process."

"The idea that they cannot process 150 refugees after more than 24 hours is ridiculous and shameful," Mensing said.

A spokesperson for CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan on Monday said the CBP had reached capacity at the San Ysidro port over the weekend, and the agency's officers were temporarily unable to bring travelers "without appropriate entry documentation" into the port for processing.

The spokesperson later said the CBP began processing undocumented arrivals again on Monday but noted that some of the caravan members may need to wait in Mexico while CBP officers continue work to process those already within "our facilities."

The San Ysidro port entry crossing can only hold 300 people temporarily, according to the CBP's San Diego office. The asylum seekers are usually held for three days at the border and then turned over to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which provides screening from officers well-versed in asylum law, or released into the U.S. with ankle monitors.

"The number of inadmissible individuals we are able to process in a day varies based on the complexity of the cases, resources available, medical needs, translation requirements, holding/detention space, overall port volume and enforcement actions," the spokesperson said Monday night. "In the past when we've had to limit the number of people we can bring in for processing at a given time, we expect that this will be a temporary situation."

The Justice Department's criminal complaints against 11 suspected members of the caravan did not include any who showed up at the San Ysidro port to legally go through the application for asylum status in the United States, a lengthy process that could lead to approval or denial by U.S. immigration judges.

According to the U.S. attorney's complaints against the 11 individuals, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended the defendants after they allegedly illegally crossed into the United States miles east of the San Ysidro official point of entry in California. The complaints allege that the defendants "knowingly and willingly entered the United States at a time and place other than as designated by immigrations officers, and eluded examination by immigration officers," the Justice Department said in a release.

The release noted that a complaint contains only allegations, and "a defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a court of law."