Crackdown: 200 Illegal Immigrants to Be Prosecuted for Crossing the Border

Those coming into the U.S. without permission have been getting a pass for the first offense, but now that's changing

Updated 07 Nov 2017 at 6:28 AM

In another sign there’s a new sheriff in town, President Donald Trump’s administration handed over more than 200 first-time border crossers caught in a single area of Arizona for criminal prosecution, according to Customs and Border Protection figures.

A significant increase in prosecutions of first-time offenders would represent a dramatic break from recent policy, which essentially gave a free pass to illegal immigrants who had no prior criminal record or history with immigration authorities. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April pushed U.S. attorneys’ offices to take a harder line on first-time offenders.

In the past five years, federal prosecutors brought illegal entry charges against an average of 239 people a year. In the five years before that, an average of 1,356 people a year were charged.

"It's one of those things they do to deter people from coming … It's a crackdown," said Andrew "Art" Arthur, a fellow in law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies.

Advocates for stricter border enforcement welcomed the change.

"It's just a matter of enforcement under the Trump administration," said Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism at NumbersUSA. "They're going to take every single illegal crossing seriously, whether it's the first one or the 10th one."

First-Time Border Crossers

Criminal cases filed against
first-time border crossers by year*
Year Cases
2008 1604
2009 2052
2010 1447
2011 1158
2012 517
2013 266
2014 274
2015 270
2016 224
2017 163
*12-month period ending in March
Source: Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts

Chmielenski said federal prosecutors pursued more first-time offenders toward the end of George W. Bush's administration. He said this led to Obama's "catch-and-release" policy, in which the Obama administration instructed U.S. Border Patrol officers to release people apprehended at the border — sometimes with a notice to appear in immigration court and sometimes not.

Typically, illegal immigrants do not face criminal charges unless they have previously been caught in the United States without permission. At that point, they can be prosecuted for illegal re-entry, a felony punishable by two years in prison.

Chmielenski said even though first-time offenders face only a misdemeanor charge, punishable by up to six months in jail, it still can serve as a deterrent. That is important considering that illegal crossings have been on the rise after hitting a low in April, he said.

But Chmielenski said the federal government does not have the resources to target everyone.

"In practice, it won't be tremendously effective until we get more immigration judges and detention space," he said.

The new policy has the support of the union that represents Border Patrol officers.

"I think it's a great idea, and the reason I believe it's a great idea is you have to send a message that there's a consequence," said Brandon Judd, president of the U.S. Border Patrol Council.

Judd said the sector targeted in last month's prosecution referral, Nogales, Arizona, has caused border agents "huge problems in the past." He said the sector, covering 32 miles along the Mexican border and 1,100 square miles overall, offers illegal immigrants easy access to interstate highways and urban areas.

"It's much more difficult to apprehend people once they get across," he said.