Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced that the Department of Justice (DOJ) will now seek felony charges against undocumented immigrants who make repeated attempts to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. The new directive is among a series of priorities to follow through on President Donald Trump's calls for stricter immigration enforcement.
On April 11, Sessions delivered a speech before the border in Nogales, Arizona. The attorney general outlined his new directives for federal prosecutors to prioritize litigation against undocumented immigrants who enter and live in the U.S. and those who aid them.
"For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned: This is a new era," Sessions said. "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."
Sessions announced that repeat offenders at the border would be charged with a felony. Previously, undocumented immigrants apprehended by border patrol could only be charged with a misdemeanor, according to Town Hall.
"Further, where an alien has unlawfully entered the country, which is a misdemeanor, that alien will now be charged with a felony if they unlawfully enter or attempt to enter a second time and certain aggravating circumstances are present," Sessions said.
The attorney general added that undocumented immigrants who "illegally re-enter the country after prior removal will be referred for felony prosecution -- and a priority will be given to such offenses, especially where indicators of gang affiliation, a risk to public safety or criminal history are present."
The new directives could result in a surge in undocumented immigrants detained in U.S. prisons.
Later the same evening, Sessions emphasized during an interview that undocumented immigrants who are caught at the border will face unprecedented legal penalties.
"The border is not open," Sessions told Fox News. "Please don't come. You will be apprehended if you do come and you will be deported promptly. If you're a criminal, you will be prosecuted, and if you assault our officers, we're going to come at you [like] a ton of bricks."
Advocates for stricter immigration enforcement praised Sessions' new directives as a potentially effective way to curb illegal immigration.
"All of these steps from detention to more judges to prosecuting those who have previously been deported will drive down the number of illegals in the country and lead to even bigger drops in those trying to sneak across the border," Hans von Spakovsky of the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation told The Daily Beast. "All of this is long overdue."
Between September 2015 and September 2016, 52 percent of all federal prosecutions in the U.S. were for immigration violations. Sessions' new directives mean that federal prosecutors will be compelled to make immigration offenses the bulk of their prosecution priorities, which has critics concerned about other crimes receiving minimal attention.
"Every dollar spent on prosecuting an illegal immigrant for illegal reentry is a dollar that could have been spent on prosecuting or investigating a real crime," said Alex Nowrasteh of the libertarian think tank Cato Institute. "It's a shame the government is prioritizing the enforcement of, essentially, labor market regulations over violent and property crimes."
One federal prosecutor who requested anonymity expressed alarm over the new directives, worrying that they will compel their office to put immigrant families in prison.
"It's totally horrifying and we're all terrified about it, and we don't know what to do," the federal prosecutor said.