SAN DIEGO — Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday ordered a “zero tolerance” policy aimed at people entering the United States illegally for the first time on the Mexican border.
Sessions told federal prosecutors in border districts to put more emphasis on charging people with illegal entry, which has historically been treated as a misdemeanor offense for those with few or no previous encounters with border authorities. Smugglers and frequent offenders are usually charged with more serious crimes.
His one-page order lacks specifics on how the policy will be carried out but signals that major change is in the works. He tells prosecutors to ask for additional resources if needed to prosecute cases.
The move caps a week of unusually intense attention to border security that included President Donald Trump’s order for thousands of National Guard members to head to the border.
Sessions said “a crisis has erupted” on the border, requiring more criminal prosecutions. He issued a similar directive a year ago that addressed a larger number of border crimes and used softer language on new offenders, saying that prosecutors “should aim to accomplish the goal of deterring first-time improper entrants.”
His new order introduces the zero-tolerance terminology and deals exclusively with the statute applied to first-time crossers, saying a recent increase in illegal crossings “requires an updated approach.”
A conviction for illegal entry carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison for first-time crossers and two years for repeat offenses. In practice, many are deported after pleading guilty and spending a few days in jail.
As a model, Sessions pointed to a Border Patrol effort launched in 2005 in Texas, which targeted first-time crossers for criminal prosecution. It eventually spread to federal courts throughout Texas, Arizona and New Mexico but didn’t reach California.
Sessions said the operation contributed to a “decrease in illegal activities” but its success has been debated. In 2015, the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general called for a fuller account of its impact.
Border Patrol figures show Mexicans were much less likely to try crossing again if they were criminally charged than if they were simply turned around. But the operation also severely strained courtrooms and jails and fueled criticism of “assembly-line justice.”
In Tucson, Arizona, 70 people filled a courtroom to plead guilty in collective hearings that could last less than an hour.
Sessions told border prosecutors that he was open to other ideas.
“Remember, our goal is not simply more cases,” he wrote. “It is to end the illegality in our immigration system.”
Border arrests, a useful but imperfect gauge of illegal crossings, reached 50,308 in March, up 37 percent from February and more than triple the same period last year. That’s still less than periodic surges during former President Barack Obama’s second term and far lower than the 1990s and 2000s.
Immigration judges overseen by Sessions were told last week of quotas starting Oct. 1, with an expectation to complete 700 cases a year.
The Justice Department cast it as an effort to reduce a court backlog of nearly 700,000 cases, but the judges union and immigration attorneys predicted it would deprive people of fair hearings and provide more grounds for appeal, potentially worsening the backlog.