US Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered prosecutors and judges to take a tougher line on undocumented immigrants on Tuesday, saying more severe punishment could deter illegal border crossers.
Speaking in Nogales, Arizona, Sessions said anyone who crosses the US-Mexico border without legal immigration documents would now be detained and presented to a judge. In the past, most were just delivered back over the border.
He also ordered prosecutors to jail people who transport and harbor illegal immigrants; to lodge felony charges against people caught a second time sneaking into the country; and to charge anyone caught using false papers with fraud and identity theft, which brings a minimum two-year jail sentence.
“For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned: This is a new era. This is the Trump era,” Sessions told an audience of border patrol agents.
“The lawlessness, the abdication of the duty to enforce our immigration laws and the catch and release practices of old are over.”
Sessions, who came into office with a strong mandate from President Donald Trump to crack down on undocumented immigrants, described the southern US border as “ground zero” in the fight against drug smuggling and transnational gangs like the largely Salvadoran MS-13.
“It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand,” he said.
Sessions said the Justice Department would be hiring another 125 immigration judges over 2016-2017 to handle an expected surge in cases arising from the crackdown.
He added that Trump’s approach was already seeing results, citing a 40 percent fall in illegal immigrant crossings from January to February.