Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday told U.S. attorneys working along the U.S.-Mexican border to exercise "zero tolerance" in charging illegal border crossers in their districts.
"Those seeking to further an illegal goal constantly alter their tactics to take advantage of weak points. That means we must effectively respond with smart changes also," Sessions wrote.
The new memo instructs all U.S. attorneys in the relevant districts to prosecute every violator of the federal law which bars improper entry by an alien individual, as opposed to selectively prosecuting only criminal or repeat offender cases. In other words, attorneys are instructed to prosecute even first-time, non-violent offenders, a policy which the Obama administration initially followed before shying away in later years.
Sessions's new order comes just a day after the Department of Homeland Security announced that attempted illegal entries along the southwestern border have increased notably over the past month. Attempted illegal crossing rose 37 percent in March as compared to February, and 203 percent comparing March 2018 to March 2017. (Notably, March 2017 marked the second lowest point of illegal immigration in the past five years.)
Zero tolerance practices, Sessions claimed in his memo, have led to a reduction in attempted illegal entry. In support of this analysis, he pointed to Operation Streamline, a zero-tolerance prosecution program begun in 2005.
Analysis from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency suggested that illegal crossers attempted to reenter the United States less frequently when prosecuted under Streamline as opposed to voluntarily departing the country, although the Department of Homeland Security has suggested that CBP's analysis was inadequate.
After initially adhering to the Bush-era policy, the Obama administration eventually reduced prosecutions under Streamline, in part due to concerns raised as to the program's justness and cost effectiveness. Senate Republicans have called on Sessions to re-implement the program in full.
Friday's order follows another Sessions issued in April, outlining his Justice Department's priorities in charging illegal immigration generally. Characterized by the Justice Department as a "renewed commitment to criminal immigration enforcement," the memo instructed all U.S. attorneys to prosecute the smuggling of illegal immigrants, as well as repeated reentry and the entry of criminal aliens.
Although federally prosecuted immigration offenses concentrate along the Mexican border, immigration enforcement has expanded nationwide under President Donald Trump. Arrests by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency hit a three-year high in Trump's first year, reversing a 30 percent decline under the Obama administration.
"To those who wish to challenge the Trump Administration's commitment to public safety, national security, and the rule of law, I warn you: illegally entering this country will not be rewarded, but will instead be met with the full prosecutorial powers of the Department of Justice," Sessions promised in a statement Friday.