New zero-tolerance policy for immigrants entering illegally

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LOS ANGELES — The Trump administration announced Monday that it is dramatically stepping up prosecutions of those who illegally cross the Southwest border, ramping up a "zero tolerance" policy intended to deter new migrants with the threat of jail sentences and separating immigrant children from their parents.

"If you cross the Southwest border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It's that simple," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in announcing a policy that will impose potential criminal penalties on border crossers who previously faced mainly civil deportation proceedings — and in the process, force the separation of families crossing the border for months or longer.

The new policy could flood the immigration courts, already suffering severe backlogs, and create new detention space shortages for federal agencies that even now have been forced to release many unauthorized immigrants until their cases can be heard. Sessions said he has dispatched 35 additional prosecutors and 18 immigration judges to the Southwest border region to help handle expanding caseloads.

The stepped-up enforcement strategy marks the Trump administration's toughest move yet to stem the flow of migrants into the United States, though officials said the category of migrants accounting for much of the recent surge, those seeking asylum from violence in Central America, will still be able to apply for legal refuge.

"Today we're here to send a message to the world that we are not going to let the country be overwhelmed. People are not going to caravan or otherwise stampede our border," Sessions said.

The new policy strikes squarely at parents who have traveled with their children, some apparently with the expectation that they would face shorter periods of detention while their cases were heard.

The new initiative will result in referring all illegal Southwest border crossings to the Justice Department for prosecution, Sessions said, and federal prosecutors will file charges in as many cases as possible "until we get to 100 percent."

"What is notable about this is that they are taking into criminal proceedings first-time crossers, which has generally not been the case in the past," said Doris Meissner, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, who served as immigration commissioner during the Clinton administration.

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