One by one, the Mexican men stood in the jury box, shackles rattling as they fidgeted slightly and pleaded guilty to crossing the U.S. border illegally.
They had come for better jobs, many to earn more money to help raise their children, their defense lawyer told a federal magistrate in a quiet west Texas courtroom about 3 miles (5 kilometers) north of the Mexican border. The magistrate, Collis White, warned that a guilty plea would mean jail time and they couldn’t return to the United States legally for years. Speaking in Spanish, each of the 15 men said they understood. They faced up to six months in jail, but most were sentenced to just a few days.
They had the misfortune of landing in America’s toughest courthouse for people who cross the border illegally. In other jurisdictions, authorities routinely skip the criminal charges and order quick deportations. But for the last decade, just about everyone arrested near Del Rio gets prosecuted.
That tough approach is a model President Donald Trump hopes to replicate as part of his sweeping plans to stop illegal immigration, a cornerstone of his campaign. He wants to prosecute many more people caught crossing the border illegally as a warning to others that such action has serious consequences.
Supporters of aggressive prosecutions point to a drop in arrests for illegal border crossings in the Del Rio area as evidence that the tough approach works. Fewer arrests are seen as an indication that fewer people are trying to cross illegally.
Cost of cracking down
Stepping up prosecutions wouldn’t be cheap. Immigration cases already account for more than half of federal prosecutions. Trump is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars more for additional jail cells, prosecutors and marshals to transport prisoners. It’s unclear if Congress will give him the money.
Civil libertarians object to the prosecutions, saying those arrested are rushed through the legal system without having a chance to exercise their rights.
And a previous attempt to expand the Del Rio approach had mixed results. Prosecutions spiked at the end of the Bush administration and during the first years of the Obama administration, but later declined. Limited resources, including jail space and not enough prosecutors, contributed to that drop.
Still, Trump administration officials plan to press ahead. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly made the point as they’ve toured the border in recent weeks, saying that those who enter the U.S. illegally will be prosecuted and deported. The Justice Department this month called on prosecutors to appoint border security coordinators in every judicial district.
“This is a new era. This is the Trump era,” Sessions said while visiting the border in Nogales, Arizona.
In White’s Del Rio courtroom, cases of illegal border crossings were handled in under a minute. Only one man was sentenced to more than a few days.
“If you can find a legal way to come back, you’re more than welcome,” White told the men, his words translated by an interpreter. “But it has to be just that.”
Drop in border crossings
The new push for prosecutions comes as the number of people crossing the border illegally has plummeted. Under President Barack Obama, there was a steady decline in arrests. And in March, the second full month of the Trump administration, border agents reported the fewest border crossers in a single month in at least 17 years.
Illegal immigration straddles a line in federal courthouses. Being in the United States illegally — whether after crossing a border or overstaying a visa — is a civil offense. But those caught crossing the border illegally can face criminal charges, though that generally doesn’t happen. Those who return illegally after being convicted can face years in prison.
The Del Rio prosecution strategy was the result of an earlier push to secure the border. Before it started, agents in the Border Patrol’s Del Rio Sector arrested more than 68,000 people in a 12-month period. Now arrests in the area have dropped to an average of about 20,000 a year.
The acting chief patrol agent in Del Rio, Matthew Hudak, said the effort has succeeded for several reasons.
“Policy matters, enforcement matters, the work of agents matters,” Hudak said.
It helps that the Border Patrol’s sector there only covers one judicial district. In other areas, agents often work across state and judicial district lines, making it more difficult to coordinate prosecution, jail space and transportation.
The often-brief court proceedings alarm civil libertarians.
Celia Wang, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said border crossers facing prosecution are urged to plead guilty and don’t fully know the implications of that. Immigrants convicted of a crime often lose their chance to make claims to stay in the United States, including asylum.
“People have no idea what is happening,” Wang said. “It’s completely lost on [them],”