Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ new guidelines on illegal immigration, which he announced last week on a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border, will bring far-reaching changes to the way federal officials and, in some cases, local law enforcers, handle illegal immigrants.
“For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned: This is a new era,” Sessions said. “This is the Trump era. The lawlessness, the abdication of the duty to enforce our immigration laws, and the catch-and-release practices of old are over.”
That “new era” will feature three specific changes to U.S. policy on illegal immigration:
-- The Justice Department will have a more visible and forceful role in handling immigration, which heretofore had been handled by the Department of Homeland Security;
-- Fraudulent identification will now be handled as a more serious illegal activity, leading to criminal charges, jail and deportation; and
-- Transporting and harboring illegal immigrants also will be treated in a more serious manner and cover more types of situations.
Until now, the face of U.S. immigration policy has been that of the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. That department includes Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP.
Now, however, the Justice Department will have a prominent role in enforcing immigration policies, including tougher border security and a more dogged pursuit of people here illegally, whether or not they’re serious criminals.
As part of that newer, hawkish approach, Sessions is instructing the nation’s 94 U.S. attorneys – those along the border states as well as in the interior -- to make immigration enforcement a priority of their job. He also has instructed them to create by Tuesday a new position in their office, that of an assistant U.S. attorney devoted solely to investigate cases involving non-U.S. citizens – who may be illegal or have legal status but not be naturalized – and to prosecute them.
That’s virtual 180-degree change from the Obama administration’s practice. Former Attorney General Eric Holder led court battles against state efforts to crack down on illegal immigration. Under Obama, the Justice Department led a lawsuit against Arizona’s immigration law, which made illegal immigration a state crime and required local law enforcement to question anyone they suspect of being undocumented about their immigration status. The department also challenged a Texas-led lawsuit over the Obama administration’s executive orders temporarily suspending deportation for millions of immigrants who came as children and were here illegally, as well as for undocumented parents of U.S.-citizen kids or legal permanent residents.
"The district court's decision wrongly prevents these lawful, commonsense policies from taking effect," the White House said in a statement at the time. "The Supreme Court and Congress have made clear that the federal government can set priorities in enforcing our immigration laws — which is exactly what the President did when he announced commonsense policies to help fix our broken system.”
Does he really want to prosecute some dishwasher? It's a diversion of resources away from real crimes -- bank robberies, drug activities. It's the use of law to persecute, not just prosecute. Federal prosecutors have more important things to do.
- David Leopold, past president of American Immigration Lawyers Association
The second major change to U.S. immigration policy concerns fraudulent documents. The vast majority of illegal immigrants have false documents – whether it’s a Social Security card they obtained from third parties or a counterfeit document they used to get employment or rent an apartment, among other things.
That seldom landed someone in trouble with law enforcement, at least not the kind of trouble that ended up with criminal charges, detention and deportation.
An exception was a controversial raid in 2008, under the Bush administration, in Postville, a city in Iowa of 2,000. About 400 illegal immigrants were arrested at a slaughterhouse, most of them on identity fraud charges for bogus documents they used to secure employment.
Most were deported after spending several months in jail.
Sessions indicated that finding and arresting those who are involved in document fraud will become a priority.
“Where possible, prosecutor are directed to change criminal aliens with document fraud and aggravated identity theft – the latter carrying a two-year mandatory minimum sentence,” he said.
The third change will be a strict enforcement of laws against harboring illegal immigrants. Until now those laws were used mainly against smugglers and those who ran safe houses where trafficked people were kept. Sessions said the Justice Department will hike efforts to track and prosecute people who transport and harbor illegal immigrants. Some lawyers and immigration experts say that, strictly interpreted, that could cover a pastor who provides shelter to illegal immigrants or transports them to church.
Proponents of more flexible immigration policies say that Sessions' handling of immigration is draconian and harmful. They say it brushes all immigrants with the same broad stroke, treating them as dangerous.
“He’s trying to make the Justice Department an immigration enforcement agency, that’s the job of Homeland Security,” said David Leopold, the past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “He’s taking a very aggressive approach. What he is trying to do wholesale is the criminalization of the immigrant population.”
“Especially with document fraud, there’s the potential to criminalize a lot of folks,” Leopold said. "Does he really want to prosecute some dishwasher? It's a diversion of resources away from real crimes -- bank robberies, drug activities. It's the use of the law to persecute, not just prosecute. Federal prosecutors have more important things to do."
You have to remember that there's a system, a legal justice system in place. And the law deports people. Secretary Kelly doesn't. ICE doesn't. It's the United States criminal justice system or justice system that deports people.
- John Kelly, Secretary, Department of Homeland Security
In California, San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon supported the nomination of Sessions for attorney general. And the sheriff strongly supports collaborating with ICE agents, such as when they hold immigrants who have been charged with serious crimes until federal officials can pick them up and put them in their custody for deportation proceedings.
But McMahon, like many other law enforcement officials, does not want the local-federal partnership in immigration to extend to his force checking the legal status of people they encounter during the normal course of their work, or when someone is cited for anything that is not a serious misdeamanor or felony. California laws do not allow such cooperation, but the sheriff also believes that acting as quasi-immigration agents works against fighting crime in the community.
“We are very concerned about our cooperation with the communities that we serve,” McMahon said to the San Bernardino Sun. “We don’t want to do anything that would prevent people or would inhibit people from reporting a crime or reporting to us that they’ve been a victim of a crime. We don’t want anyone to think that, because of their status in the country, that they can’t call local law enforcement and ask for help. So, that’s why we don’t do any street level immigration enforcement.”
As for immigrants who pose a threat to public safety, the sheriff said everyone wants them out of the country.
“Nobody seems to have any issue with that,” McMahon said. “To be quite honest, somebody who’s been convicted of, or is charged with a serious violent crime, and they’re in the country illegally, I don’t know that anybody would suggest that they need to stay in this country.”
On Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly reiterated Sessions' pronouncement of a new era in immigration enforcement.
In an interview with NBC, Kelly said that immigration officials will pursue immigrants who have until now not been priorities for enforcement.
“Someone, as an example, with multiple DUIs,” Kelly said, will now get more attention for deportation. “Even a single DUI, depending on other aspects, would get you into the system."
“You have to remember that there’s a system, a legal justice system in place,” he said. “And the law deports people. Secretary Kelly doesn’t. ICE doesn’t. It’s the United States criminal justice system or justice system that deports people.”
Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.