New Data Shows How Trump Administration Prosecuted Migrant Parents With Children Instead of Adults Traveling Alone

Less than a third of unauthorized migrants were prosecuted in May. The Trump administration made sure many were parents.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at a news conference near the border in San Diego, California, in May.Gregory Bull/AP

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

In May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department would strive to prosecute everyone who crossed the US-Mexico border without authorization. The fact that the “zero tolerance” prosecutions led to splitting apart more than 2,000 families didn’t matter. “If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you,” Sessions said as he stood along the border in San Diego. “It’s that simple.”

But it was never actually that simple. The Justice Department couldn’t prosecute all unauthorized migrants, and federal officials needed to choose who to target. Newly released government data shows that the Trump administration prosecuted thousands of parents instead of prosecuting adults traveling without children. Those zero-tolerance prosecutions caused the family separation crisis by placing parents in the custody of the Justice Department and turning their children into “unaccompanied” minors.

Less than one-third of migrants apprehended by Border Patrol agents were criminally prosecuted in May, according to a report released on Tuesday by the Transactional Access Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan research center at Syracuse University. Case-by-case records analyzed by TRAC show that 9,216 people were prosecuted along the southern border in May following referrals from Customs and Border Protection, a division of the Department of Homeland Security. More than 40,000 adults and children were apprehended by Border Patrol agents in May. After excluding children, who were not targeted for prosecution, TRAC found that “a generous estimate indicates criminal prosecutions were still at most only 32 percent of total Border Patrol apprehensions.”

TRAC

Border Patrol agents apprehended more than 24,000 adults traveling without children who crossed the border in May, meaning that the Justice Department could have increased prosecutions for illegal entry without prosecuting any parents and separating families. “The so-called zero-tolerance policy didn’t as a practical matter eliminate prosecutorial discretion,” TRAC concluded. “Since less than one out of three adults were actually prosecuted, CBP personnel had to choose which individuals among those apprehended to refer to federal prosecutors.” The total number of prosecutions in May increased 11 by percent compared with April and 44 percent compared with March.

Sessions announced the zero-tolerance policy in April, telling federal prosecutors along the border that they should take up all DHS referrals for illegal entry into the United States. One month later, Sessions unveiled a new initiative under which DHS would refer all illegal entry cases for prosecution. “And the Department of Justice will take up as many of those cases as humanly possible until we get to 100 percent,” Sessions said.

The Trump administration has not explained how it chose whom to prosecute beyond saying that no one would be exempt under the zero-tolerance initiative and that everyone would be subject to potential prosecution. The obvious explanation for prosecuting parents was that Sessions and the Trump administration wanted to deter families from crossing the border without authorization. Yet at a June White House press briefing two days before Trump rescinded his family separation policy, a reporter asked Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen if the Trump administration was intentionally separating families. “I find that offensive,” Nielsen replied. “No. Because why would I ever create a policy that purposely does that?”

“Perhaps a deterrent?” the reporter followed up. “No,” she said with visible exasperation.

Sessions was more candid in an interview with Fox News that aired later that night. Not prosecuting parents had driven more families to cross the border illegally, he told Laura Ingraham. “So yes,” Sessions continued, “hopefully people will get the message and come through the border at the port of entry and not break across the border unlawfully.”

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Corporations and billionaires don’t fund journalism like ours that exists to shake things up. Instead, support from readers allows Mother Jones to call it like it is without fear, favor, or false equivalence.

And right now, a longtime friend of Mother Jones has pledged an incredibly generous gift to inspire—and double—giving from online readers. That's huge! Because you can see that our fall fundraising drive is well behind the $325,000 we need to raise. So if you agree that in-depth, fiercely independent journalism matters right now, please support our work and help us raise the money it takes to keep Mother Jones charging hard. Your gift, and all online donations up to $94,000 total, will be matched and go twice as far—but only until the November 9 deadline.

$400,000 to go: Please help us pick up the pace!

payment methods

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Corporations and billionaires don’t fund journalism like ours that exists to shake things up. Instead, support from readers allows Mother Jones to call it like it is without fear, favor, or false equivalence.

And right now, a longtime friend of Mother Jones has pledged an incredibly generous gift to inspire—and double—giving from online readers. That's huge! Because you can see that our fall fundraising drive is well behind the $325,000 we need to raise. So if you agree that in-depth, fiercely independent journalism matters right now, please support our work and help us raise the money it takes to keep Mother Jones charging hard. Your gift, and all online donations up $94,000 total, will be matched and go twice as far—but only until the November 9 deadline.

$400,000 to go: Please help us pick up the pace!

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate