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Immigration activists hold signs against family separation during a rally to protest against the Trump Administration's immigration policy, outside the White House in Washington, U.S., June 30, 2018.  © 2018 Reuters

(Washington, DC) – The mass criminal prosecutions of migrants under US President Donald Trump have increased sharply despite the formal end of the administration’s practice of separating families, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing a “question and answer” analysis.

In April 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy and directed federal prosecutors along the southwest border to prosecute all cases of illegal entry into the US “to the extent practicable.”

“Trump’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy hasn’t deterred illegal immigration, but only heightened the crisis of families stopped at the border,” said Grace Meng, senior US researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Attorney General Sessions has just continued and compounded a failed policy.”

Misdemeanor illegal entry (for entering the US without authorization) and felony illegal reentry (for reentering the US after deportation) have been crimes since the early 20th century. But prosecutions were limited to immigrants with serious prior criminal histories or repeat offenders. In 2005, Operation Streamline was introduced in Del Rio, Texas, permitting rapid-fire mass prosecutions of migrants.

The Trump administration’s policy is the first to target parents traveling with children for prosecution and to couple criminal prosecution of asylum seekers with policy changes intended to restrict eligibility for asylum to those who enter the US illegally. Penalizing asylum seekers for entering without authorization is a violation of international refugee law.

Criminal prosecutions also often affect long-term US residents who seek to reunite with US citizen family members but have no legal way to do so. The executive order ending family separation does nothing to address the devastating impact of criminal immigration prosecutions on such families.

The “zero-tolerance” policy draws enormous resources from federal prosecutors, courts, US Marshals, and the Bureau of Prisons to prosecute people with little or no criminal histories for misdemeanor offenses. Recent government data indicate the current policy is already resulting in significantly fewer prosecutions for other federal crimes. At the same time, there is little evidence such prosecutions deter illegal immigration, Human Rights Watch said.

“The public outrage over family separation should extend to the serious human and financial costs of mass criminal prosecution of immigrants,” Meng said. “The Trump administration should recognize the value of reducing these costs, and end the ‘zero-tolerance’ policy.”

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