Sessions Says ‘Zero Tolerance’ Policy for Border Crossers May Split Families

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions addresses the media during a press conference at Border Field State Park on May 7, 2018, in San Ysidro. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

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 U.S. 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.

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."

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.

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.

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."