Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced a series of U.S. Department of Justice priorities to crack down on illegal immigration, a central campaign promise of President Donald Trump.
Sessions elaborated on the administration's immigration policies through a memo to federal attorneys and a speech delivered in Arizona.
On April 11, Sessions delivered an address from the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona. In his prepared remarks, he asserted that prosecuting undocumented immigrants who enter the country illegally would be a top priority for the Trump administration.
"For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned," Sessions said, according to Politico. "This is a new era. This is the Trump era. The lawlessness, the abdication of the duty to enforce our immigration laws, and the catch and release practices of old are over."
The prepared remarks added that immigration officials would crack down on drug cartels and human traffickers who use the border, asserting "It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand against this filth."
When Sessions gave the speech, he omitted the phrase "against this filth."
That same day, the attorney general circulated a three-page memo directing all U.S. attorneys to make prosecuting illegal border crossings and anyone who aids and abets undocumented immigrants "higher priorities."
The memo also called on the DOJ to seek felony charges against undocumented immigrants who make repeated attempts to cross the border, charge undocumented immigrants who obtain falsified documents to obtain work with identity theft and to prosecute citizens who marry immigrants for the purpose of helping them acquire legal residence.
During his speech, Sessions stated that his DOJ would add more judges to rule on immigration crimes. In March, the DOJ announced that it would establish 14 new federal prisons to hold detained undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation to phase out the practice of catching and releasing, according to KTAR.
Former deputy assistant attorney general Leon Fresco had expressed alarm about the DOJ's new posture towards immigration enforcement.
"We've never had this sort of zero tolerance for illegal immigration prosecutions..." Fresco said, Politico reports. "[The memo] could easily be interpreted to mean: 'Prosecute as many people as you can for these things.'"
Former U.S. attorney Jenny Durkan of Washington state worries that asking federal attorneys to prioritize immigration crime could shift DOJ resources away from other pressing issues.
"Which prosecutors and agents does [Sessions] want to divert from the growing threats like terrorism, cyber crime, the opioid and heroin trade, organized crime and cartel activity?" Durkan told The Washington Post. "The 'surge' philosophy always requires taking agents, money and prosecutors from other priorities."
Former U.S. attorney Paul K. Charlton of Arizona, whose office handled the highest volume of immigration prosecutions in the U.S. during his tenure, believes enforcement can only do so much to stem illegal immigration, and that it's up to Congress to act.
"Prosecution and incarceration do not adequately address the real need, which is a reform of the immigration laws," Charlton said.