5 things to know about tougher prosecution of immigration offenses

FILE PHOTO: Attorney General Jeff Sessions this week issued a memo to federal prosecutors urging them to make certain immigration offenses
FILE PHOTO: Attorney General Jeff Sessions this week issued a memo to federal prosecutors urging them to make certain immigration offenses "higher priorities."
Susan Walsh/AP

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions this week issued a memo to federal prosecutors, directing them to designate certain immigration offenses as "higher priorities" for charges, including cases involving immigrants who enter the country without authorization multiple times.

During a tour of the U.S.-Mexico border Tuesday, Sessions laid out the plan for tougher prosecution of immigration law violators.

"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.”

Here are highlights of the new directive and how it might impact California.

Question: What are the offenses getting higher priority to prosecution?

The attorney general told federal prosecutors to consider felony charges against those who have been convicted of entering the U.S. illegally twice or more, typically a misdemeanor offense.

Federal attorneys along the U.S.-Mexico border were also encouraged to draft prosecution guidelines for first-time, illegal border crossers. The prosecutors should also file charges in "any case involving the unlawful transportation or harboring of aliens," according to the Sessions memo.

The attorney general further urged the prosecution of individuals for aggravated identity theft crimes, document fraud, and "assaulting, resisting, or impeding" officers while they are enforcing immigration laws.

Bill Hing, who teaches immigration law at the University of San Francisco, explained the intent of the latest policy: “They want U.S. attorneys to begin prosecuting more vigorously illegal reentry, especially those who returned without inspection [authorization] after they’ve been deported.”

Q: Who will be affected and what penalties would they face?

Sessions' memo stresses that those with criminal histories are priorities for prosecution. But it does not exclude non-criminals.

People without criminal records caught entering for the first time could be prosecuted for entering illegally, a misdemeanor charge for which people can be fined and sent to prison for up to six months.

Those who are convicted on illegal entry charges twice or more and are caught entering again could be charged with a felony.

Angela Sanbrano with the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles, which helps immigrants, said such people should not be criminalized. “They were deported and are trying to get back to their families,” she said.

The harboring, transporting and identity theft provisions in the memo are up for interpretation. The memo reads that "priority should be given to those who are bringing in three or more aliens into the United States and those who are transporting or harboring three or more aliens."

But legal experts and advocates say it is unclear if the language could be applied beyond immigrant smuggling to anyone who aids unauthorized immigrants, including churches providing sanctuaries.

Q: Are people prosecuted for illegal entry now?

Yes, although in a more limited way. People who re-enter the U.S. illegally after being formally deported are subject to fines and up to two years' imprisonment.

As for those caught entering the country who have not already been deported, a policy called Operation Streamline initiated in 2005 called for prosecution of illegal entrants along much of the southern border. Those caught entering illegally are fast-tracked through the judicial system.

However, this policy has never been applied in California. Critics of Operation Streamline have said it strains federal resources, especially the courts.

Q: What else does the memo call for?

Sessions also directs federal prosecutors to designate a "border security coordinator" in their districts by April 18. Their responsibilities will include overseeing immigration investigations and prosecutions, advising assistant U.S. attorneys and managing prosecution statistics.

Q: Does Sessions' memo address cases where people illegally overstay their visas? 

These are not addressed in the memo, which is focused on illegal border entries, particularly along the U.S.-Mexico border.