Speaking at the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales Tuesday morning, the nation’s top law enforcement officer outlined plans to amp up prosecutions and detentions for immigrants apprehended at the border.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced new guidelines for federal prosecutors, which he said reflect a hardened stance against illegal immigration, drug smuggling and transnational gangs and increased support for U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, who he called the frontline against “criminal organizations that turn cities and suburbs into war zones, that rape and kill innocent civilians and who profit by smuggling poison and other human beings across our borders.”
“It is here, on this sliver of land, on this border, where . . . we first take our stand,” he continued, reading from a prepared statement that ended, “against this filth.”
However, many local politicians criticized Sessions for using his visit to tout the administration’s plan to crackdown on illegal immigration without listening to local concerns about President Donald Trump’s stance on border enforcement and U.S.-Mexico relations.
“When Attorney General Sessions arrives in Nogales today, he will find a community completely at odds with this administration’s depiction of life on our southern border,” U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Tucson who represents Santa Cruz County as part of Congressional District 3, was quoted as saying in a news release Tuesday morning. “The question is not whether or not their policies meet the needs of our borderlands, but rather, will they even bother to learn what those needs actually are? So far, the answer has been a resounding no.”
Grijalva, who filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration and CBP on Wednesday (see “Grijalva joins suit targeting border wall proposal,” p. 2A), said Sessions should have taken the time to learn about the environmental, economic and human consequences of the administration’s immigration enforcement agenda and “how Trump’s confrontational stance towards Mexico, and his proposed Border Adjustment Tax, are both toxic to cities like Nogales, where the local economy is entirely dependent on cross-border commerce.”
Sessions’ day-long trip to Arizona included an aerial tour of the border in Nogales followed by stops in Litchfield Park, Ariz. and Luke Air Force Base, where he spoke to law enforcement and military personnel. And though he told reporters in Nogales that he has spent time talking with civil rights leaders, his Nogales tour did not include interactions with local law enforcement or community leaders, officials said.
“I think they overlooked a genuine opportunity where they could have gotten more information from the local authorities and leadership,” said Mayor John Doyle, adding that even 15 minutes would have given local leaders a chance to give Sessions some perspective from people who live and work in a border community.
“All I can figure is he wasn’t interested in our opinion,” he added.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Antonio Estrada said local officials were encouraged earlier this year when Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly met with local officials during a visit to Nogales. Speaking by phone Thursday, Estrada said that during the meeting he was able to express his concerns, including a need for more port officers who can help catch potential drug smugglers.
Though Sessions repeatedly talked about targeting criminal organizations and drug cartels on Tuesday, the policies laid out seemed to put a greater emphasis on prosecuting illegal entry than drug smuggling, which Estrada sees as a greater threat to the country’s well-being, he said.
“That’s the frustration I guess,” added District 1 Supervisor Manuel Ruiz, who said the county is struggling to get federal funding for infrastructure and schools, while the Trump administration makes plans to invest billions in border enforcement without listening to input from border communities. “At the end of the day, we’re the ones left holding the bag down here.”
Sessions’ speech in Nogales recounted his directives to federal prosecutors, urging them to prioritize criminal charges against anyone transporting and harboring undocumented immigrants; those in the country illegally who have committed document fraud or identity theft; and anyone who assaults a federal law enforcement officer.
He also recommended that prosecutors seek felony charges rather than misdemeanor charges for immigrants who unlawfully return to the United States after being deported, especially those with “certain aggravating circumstances,” such as gang affiliations or prior criminal history.
To ensure these priorities are met, he mandated that all 94 U.S. Attorney’s Offices appoint a border security coordinator by next Tuesday, April 18, to coordinate immigration enforcement for their districts.
“This is a new era. This is the Trump era,” he said. “The lawlessness, the abdication of the duty to enforce our immigration laws and the catch and release practices of old are over.”
Calling Trump’s executive order on border security the “guidepost,” Sessions said the new administration will prosecute immigration and drug smuggling offenses to “the full extent of the law,” and said declining apprehensions at the border in recent months are the result of the president’s tough immigration policies.
“This is no accident. This is what happens when you have a president who understands the threat, who is not afraid to publicly identify the threat and stand up to it, and who makes clear to law enforcement that the leadership of their country finally has their back, and tells the whole world that the illegality is over,” he said.
However, despite Sessions’ tough talk, the new guidelines “largely reflect current practice,” said Lynn Marcus, co-director of the University of Arizona Immigration Law Clinic, noting that immigrants who are caught crossing the border after prior removals are already typically charged with felonies and often plea down to a misdemeanor.
On the other hand, she said, his policies could put additional pressure on an already overburdened immigration court system.
During his speech, Sessions also said he’s already assigned 25 immigration judges to border detention centers, and plans to add 125 new judges over the next two years with a “streamlined hiring plan” to address severe backlogs in immigration court. However, his simultaneous insistence that “all adults who are apprehended at the border” be detained, would likely outweigh moving judges to detention centers to expedite hearings, Marcus said.
“Even if they do manage to speed up the (very slow) process of hiring immigration judges, based on the priorities they have set, the number of cases should increase exponentially, and the number of judges they’re adding would not be enough to keep up,” she wrote in an email Wednesday. “The virtual elimination of immigration enforcement priorities is bound to keep the system clogged up.”