NOGALES, ARIZ. (CN) – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions struck a tough tone on undocumented immigration during a tour of the U.S.-Mexico border Tuesday, saying intensified federal enforcement will be the new normal.
“For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned: This is a new era,” the nation’s top law enforcement official said at the Mariposa border crossing in Nogales.
“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’ words came as no surprise. As a former Alabama senator, he was known as an immigration hardliner. As the nation’s attorney general, he said he aims to “bring the full weight of both the immigration courts and federal criminal enforcement to combat this attack on our national security and sovereignty.”
Sessions outlined plans to bring federal charges against those who break immigration laws, as well as to stamp out the “filth” of criminal organizations both along the border and in the interior United States.
He said toughened criminal immigration enforcement is in line with the priorities of President Donald Trump, whom Sessions credited for drop in undocumented border crossings – including a 40 percent decrease from January to February.
He described the some of the figures as the lowest in at least 17 years, though the downward trend in undocumented crossings predates the Trump administration. In 2000, Border Patrol agents arrested a peak 1.6 million people along the Southwest border.
Since 2010, the numbers have ebbed and flowed between 327,000 and 479,000. In 2016, the agency reported 408,870 arrests, numbers used as a metric to measure the flow of undocumented immigration.
The Tucson sector, once the top gateway for crossings that includes Nogales and most of the Arizona border, saw 65,000 arrests last year – about half of the arrests made in 2012.
Texas is now the primary crossing point for both drugs and undocumented entries. An influx of Central Americans from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala has been a major reason for the uptick that caused a political crisis in 2014. The number of Central Americans, many families with children fleeing poverty and violence, has dwindled since then.
To speed up the processing of those detained at the border, Sessions said 25 immigration judges are now working at detention centers throughout the border region. People who are caught by agents, or those who surrender at the border, are subject to deportation unless they can establish grounds for asylum.
To streamline the backlogs in immigration courts, Sessions said 50 immigration judges would be added this year with 75 more in 2018.
Under the enforcement crackdown he detailed, those who enter the country without documentation after being deported could face felony charges instead of misdemeanors. Assaulting a federal law enforcement officer, using false documents and harboring or transporting undocumented people will also result in harsher penalties, Sessions said.