Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Monday that the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security will partner to prosecute anyone illegally crossing the southwest border and separate children from parents.
"If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It's that simple," said Sessions. "If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."
Sessions' announcement comes as immigration officials are seeing a new surge in illegal border crossings.
As NPR's John Burnett reported:
"New figures show a mini-surge in March — a 200 percent increase in border apprehensions compared to last year. Agents detained nearly 40,000 unauthorized immigrants. Most were families or kids traveling alone from Central America."
Immigrant advocates say such families are fleeing violence in Central America and seeking asylum in the United States.
"We don't think the U.S. should be prosecuting asylum seekers, attempting to deter asylum seekers," said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU's immigrants' Rights Project. "We certainly don't think they should be prosecuting families with little children so the end result is these little children are sent off by themselves."
"These are children who have already suffered the trauma of violence and persecution in their native countries and the arduous journey to seek safety," said Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "Why in the world would the U.S. government institute a policy that would compound their distress by separating them from their families, claiming it's for their own good?"
In his speeches, Sessions repeated his announcement made last week that he is sending 35 more prosecutors and 18 more immigration judges to the southwest border to deal with immigration cases.
In the past, people caught crossing the border illegally were simply returned to Mexico after pleading guilty and being briefly detailed. Under the new policy of "zero tolerance," Sessions said the goal is for "100 percent" of all illegal border crossers to be referred by DHS to federal prosecutors and charged with "improper entry by an alien," facing up to six months in prison. Families who are caught will be separated, with children sent to juvenile facilities.
As the Los Angeles Times reports:
"The draconian new policy is expected to send a flood of deportation cases — and legal challenges — into federal courts. It also could put thousands more immigrants in detention facilities and children in shelters, and is likely to strain an immigration system that has struggled to keep up with a surge in enforcement under President Trump."
This story has been updated.