STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions insists that from now on, it's zero tolerance. He says anybody crossing the border illegally into the United States will now be prosecuted. That means anybody. Even people who ask for asylum will be prosecuted while seeking asylum. Sessions also warned that parents who come with their children may be separated. NPR's John Burnett covers the border. He's in our studios.
John, good morning. Good to see you.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: So why would Sessions take this step, even against people seeking asylum?
BURNETT: Well, he says people were taking advantage of the asylum process, that they would be released while their cases were working their way to immigration court. And now he says the Justice Department may lock them up. Recently, there has been a spike in the number of apprehensions on the Southwest border. Officials say in April, for the second month in a row, more than 50,000 people were caught entering illegally. That's triple the number from last year in the same month. And what complicates this is that many of the crossers were families with small children, asylum-seekers who say they are fleeing criminal violence in Central America. And so the Trump administration has been threatening for months to impose really severe measures to stop this migration of families, and that's what Sessions announced yesterday.
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JEFF SESSIONS: If you're smuggling a child, then we're going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don't want your child to be separated, then don't bring him across the border illegally.
INSKEEP: So he's not defining a parent with a child here. He's saying, you're smuggling a child. What happens to the children?
BURNETT: I mean, imagine federal agents forcibly separating children from their parents, kids as young as 4 years old. And if it's their first offense, the parent will be charged with an immigration misdemeanor. That's usually punishable by up to six months in a federal institution, though usually, it's a matter of weeks. Obviously, they can't lock up the kids, so they'll be handed over to another government agency, Health and Human Services. They contract with a network of juvenile shelters that take care of the kids and try to find foster homes for them.
INSKEEP: How big a change is this, John Burnett?
BURNETT: It's huge if they follow through with it. A month ago, I was in El Paso, and I met some immigrant families at a shelter there. They'd fled Guatemala and Honduras with their small kids in tow. They did what's called a credible fear interview. They asked for asylum. If they pass the interview, they had electronic ankle monitors strapped on, and then most of them hopped on a Greyhound and went to their cities of destination to await their day in immigration court. The immigrant families actually know if they travel with kids, they'll likely be released while their immigration courses go through the system. So this new policy of separation is supposed to be a harsh deterrent.
INSKEEP: Well, how have immigrant advocates responded?
BURNETT: Well, you can imagine this has caused a great upset across the land. The government has been separating children from families even before this, and human rights activists have been protesting it for months. In their defense, immigration officials said they would only separate families if the mom was unfit to care for their offspring or if they couldn't prove parentage. What Sessions is doing now has shocked people because this becomes an across-the-board policy.
INSKEEP: Although, is this practical? Can the government actually prosecute tens of thousands of people per month, which is what we're talking about here?
BURNETT: So these judicial districts along the border are already really crowded with lots of drug and human smuggler prosecutions. The Justice Department says it has sent 35 prosecutors to the border and 18 immigration judges. I spoke to a former U.S. attorney in Texas, Johnny Sutton, yesterday. He was appointed by a Republican, and he said, it's doable, but it's really going to take a lot more resources, more prison beds to lock up these immigrant parents, and they'll need more federal judges who are willing to take on all these misdemeanor immigration cases in already bulging dockets.
INSKEEP: John, thanks very much, really appreciate it.
BURNETT: You bet.
INSKEEP: NPR's John Burnett covers the border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.