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Sessions Says 'Zero Tolerance' Policy For Border Crossers May Split Families

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks to a group of reporters at Border Field State Park, May 7, 2018.
Jean Guerrero
Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks to a group of reporters at Border Field State Park, May 7, 2018.

Sessions Says 'Zero Tolerance' For Illegal Border Crossers, Vows To Divide Families

Sessions Says 'Zero Tolerance' Policy For Border Crossers May Split Families
Sessions Says 'Zero Tolerance' Policy For Border Crossers May Split Families GUEST:Jean Guerrero, Fronteras reporter, KPBS News

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It is Tuesday, May 8. Was in the US-Mexico border illegally will lead to a criminal prosecution and separation from any children that you bring over with you. >> I have put in place is zero tolerance policy for illegal entry. If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It is that simple. >> That is a message that Jeff Sessions brought to the San Diego border yesterday. The Justice Department is launching a new craft that crackdown on border crossers. Also threatening to arrest and prosecute asylum seekers if they cross illegally. How is this a change in U.S. policy toward illegal border crossers? >> The United States has historically prosecuted people who entered the U.S. border illegally if they were repeat offenders. If they have been apprehended crossing the border illegally the first time, they do not typically prosecute these people. Normally, when people cross the border illegally, they will remain in the custody of homeland security. They will either be deported or they will -- if they asked for asylum, remain in detention centers and homeland security custody or be released on parole. But now it is best that what is going to happen is these cases, regardless of whether they are crossing the first or second time, they will be referred to the apartment of justice for print -- criminal prosecution. >> Do we know how these prosecutions will take place? >> One thing worth noting is that during these prosecutions, the people who were apprehended will receive defense attorneys. This is very unlike how things work in the immigration system when a person is trying to fight their immigration case. They are not giving attorneys and they must -- but for the criminal prosecutions, they will be getting a defense attorney from the U.S. government. >> And the primal cost of pollution -- prosecution will be handled by the Justice Department, so that probably will change where these detainees are kept until the trial. >> That's right. I have still tried to track down whether they will be kept in jail the entire time whether they will be going back and forth in detention centers and jails. >> What is a penalty if they are found guilty? >> If it is their first time, it is a federal misdemeanor which can be up to six months in prison or finds. If it is a repeat offense, it could be considered a felony and is punishable by up to to years in prison. >> The Attorney General office that he also said children would be held separately from parents if they are arrested crossing the border. >> It is not currently a policy but it is a practice, and we have been saying that for months. Hundreds of children have been separated from their parents since October. Even babies being taken from their parents and being sent thousands of miles away to shelters and foster care. They say they do this for the safety of the children because smugglers have a history of pairing children with non-parents. They are destined they say they are doing this to deter people from coming to the yarn states to begin with. Department of Homeland security said last year that they would be increasing Lee desperately grizzlies separating families to determine them from coming in the first place. The case our product -- the parents might end up getting deported but the children might be granted the right to stay in the U.S. and they may never see their parents again. >> The Attorney General said asylum-seekers will also be prosecuted if they cross the border illegally. Isn't that against international law? >> It is very complicated. It is not illegal to prosecute people who enter illegally. In the 1951 UN treaty convention, they said as long as people present themselves to officials quickly after crossing the border illegally, it is okay for them to do so because they are fleeing for their lives. Also a federal law says that people have a right to ask for asylum, regardless of where they entered the country. Here is what the Attorney General said. >> Person to enter our border, even if they want to claim asylum and do not come through the port of entry where we have processing, would be subject to prosecution. They may yet still be able to make a claim of asylum but they would be subject to the improper entry. >> He says that they want asylum, they should come through the ports of entry. The reason we are seeing a lot of people jumping the fence is a part because increasingly people are being turned away from ports of entry because of the backlog. They are told that the ports of entry are at capacity and that they will have to come back another time. >> Some immigration attorneys say this new policy will crowd federal prisons and slow down the already slow immigration system. Is is policy viable? >> He said they sent 35 prosecutors to the pout -- Southwest border to deal with these cases and it was unclear what kind of increase that represents. He also said they would be moving 18 new immigration judges here to work full-time on moving these cases. That would be to process the asylum cases, not the criminal cases. It is unclear, given the backlog of cases we have in the system, the crowded prisons, it is unclear how much of a difference these resources will make. >> I have been speaking with Kay PBS reporter Jane --. Jane, thank you.

Sessions Says 'Zero Tolerance' Policy For Border Crossers May Split Families
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Department of Homeland Security has agreed to refer anyone who enters the United States illegally on the Mexican border to his office for prosecution.

Continuing an administration crackdown on illegal immigration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned during a visit to the San Diego border area Monday that anyone who sneaks into the country will be federally prosecuted, and if they bring children with them, those children will be taken away.

He said this will also apply to people who are seeking asylum in the U.S. if they enter the U.S. outside of designated ports of entry.

"If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you — it's that simple. If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, we will prosecute you. And that child will be separated from you, as required by law," he said.

The Immigration and Nationality Act says people can apply for asylum regardless of how they enter the country. Sessions said they will still have that right, but they will also be prosecuted.

Immigration attorneys say many asylum seekers who cross the border illegally do so because they were turned away at ports of entry, told that they are "at capacity."

The visit by Sessions and Thomas D. Homan, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was the latest in a series of appearances by Trump administration officials to tout a "zero-tolerance" stance against illegal immigration. Sessions' vow to step up prosecutions follows an earlier administration move to increase the number of immigration judges and prosecutors along the border.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions Visits San Diego-Tijuana Border

His remarks were briefly interrupted by a lone protester shouting through a bullhorn, calling Sessions "evil," asking if he had a soul and why he would work for the Trump administration.

"You are evil for what you do," shouted William Johnson as security led him away. "Why are you here? Are you going to be separating families?"

Other than a brief pause, Sessions largely ignored the remarks and continued speaking.

Later, Johnson told reporters he believed more people would have come to protest Sessions' visit if the location had been more accessible. He had to hike a few miles down the beach because Border Field State Park roads were flooded, and officials were providing vehicle transportation only for the press. He said he wanted Sessions to feel unwelcome.

"He is the chief law enforcement officer of racist policies and he sued California for its sanctuary state laws. He's just not welcome here, period," he said.

Sessions noted that the Department of Justice will send 35 prosecutors and 18 immigration judges to the Southwest, equating to a roughly 50 percent increase in the number of judges hearing asylum cases.

Sessions said Americans for decades have been "pleading" for tighter immigration enforcement.

"The American people are right and just and decent to ask for this. They are right to want a safe, secure border and a government that knows who is here and who isn't," he said. "Donald Trump ran for office on that idea. I believe that is a big reason why he won. He is on fire about this. This entire government knows it."

The country "cannot take everyone on Earth who is in a difficult situation," Sessions said, before referring to a Gallup poll that indicated 150 million people around the world want to immigrate to the United States.

"It's obvious that we cannot take everyone who wants to come here without also hurting the interests of the citizens we are sworn to serve and protect. We have to have limits.

And Congress has already set them," Sessions said. "And if you want to change our laws, then pass a bill in Congress. Persuade your fellow citizens to your point of view."

The Democratic National Committee denounced Sessions' comments and the Trump administration's immigration policy as an "affront to our values as a nation."

"This administration is set on tearing families apart, detaining immigrants without justification, leaving U.S.-born children without their parents and stoking fear in immigrant communities, all while siphoning off taxpayer dollars to fund a divisive and ineffective wall," according to a DNC statement. "Attorney General Sessions continues to abuse his authority to expedite removals and deprive detained immigrants of legal counseling and due process, which further highlights this administration's hostility towards immigrant communities."

RELATED: Asylum-Seeking Mother Reunited With Her Baby After US Kept Apart For Weeks

Sessions' trip marked the fourth time a high-ranking Trump official has visited the California-Mexico border region in recent months. Trump himself was in Otay Mesa in March to survey prototypes of the border wall, which was a cornerstone of his presidential campaign. On April 18, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen visited Calexico in Imperial County, where a replacement border barrier has been under construction since President Barack Obama's administration. Vice President Mike Pence visited Calexico last Monday.

RELATED: Vice President Pence Visits U.S.-Mexico Border In Calexico

While in the Imperial Valley, Pence spoke to Homeland Security and Border Patrol employees at the El Centro Border Patrol Station to discuss plans for the proposed wall and to call for tougher controls on immigration. He advocated ending migration based on family reunification and claimed that a highly publicized immigrant caravan of Central American asylum-seekers was "undermining the laws of this country and the sovereignty of the United States."

Sessions' call for tougher immigration enforcement came a week after the caravan, with fewer than 200 migrants, arrived at the U.S. border in Tijuana following a roughly monthlong trek through Mexico. The members of the Pueblo Sin Fronteras caravan — which came under scrutiny when Trump began tweeting about it on Easter Sunday — have since begun the process of seeking asylum in the United States.

RELATED: Group Running Asylum Caravan Fears Spotlight Comes At A Cost

The attorney general previously spoke out about the caravan last week when federal prosecutors alleged that 11 of the immigrants had tried to cross the border illegally under the cover of darkness.

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

"U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman and his team 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 office to aggressively pursue prosecutions of criminal illegal entry."

RELATED: America's Wall: Decades-Long Struggle To Secure US-Mexico Border