Reason Roundup

Criminal Immigrant Prosecutions Declined Sharply After Jeff Sessions Left Office

Plus: navel-gazing student protesters, the new emblem of the culture war, and more...


Spike and drop. Last year saw a "sharp decline" in criminal immigrant prosecutions, according to the latest data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. After spiking drastically in 2018, prosecutions are back down to Obama-era levels (which is still a lot).

The three major immigration enforcement agencies—Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), all housed within the Department of Homeland Security—can directly launch only civil enforcement actions; they must refer potential criminal to the U.S. Department of Justice. At that point, it's up to federal prosecutors to decide whether to pursue charges. "Trends for referred cases have been driven largely by CBP rather than by ICE or USCIS," according to TRAC, which has long monitored month-by-month and year-over-year enforcement of federal law.

In early 2018, CBP referred around 5,000 cases for prosecution. By October 2018, this had jumped to 13,286 referrals. The number started slipping in late 2018, and last year saw further decline.

The number of criminal prosecutions that immigration agencies referred to the Justice Department in October 2019 (the last month for which TRAC has data) was down 4.2 percent from the previous month and 37.4 percent from October 2018.

Immigration agencies are still referring a lot of cases—8,315 last October, to be precise. That's still significantly higher than in Trump's first year or the tail end of the Obama presidency. But it's on par with or lower than many of the per-month referrals from October 2009 through October 2014.

TRAC points out that "the trend in CBP-referred prosecutions does not map neatly onto the trend in Border Patrol apprehensions along the Southwest border. In fact, just as apprehensions began climbing sharply in March of 2019, criminal prosecutions began to fall."

So what can explain this?

We find that criminal referrals were driven not by rates of unlawful border crossing, but by policy decisions directing CBP and federal prosecutors to focus on specific crimes for federal prosecution. On April 6, 2018, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a 'zero-tolerance policy' for those who 'illegally cross over our border'. Criminal prosecutions climbed as a result although they fell far short of their goal of zero tolerance. Criminal prosecutions at their height…were always far fewer than even the number of single adults arrested by the Border Patrol. And when parents arriving as part of family units are included along with single adults, only a minority of immigrants who crossed unlawfully were federally prosecuted.

After the resignation of former Attorney General Sessions who had personally championed prioritizing criminal prosecution of illegal entry offenses, prosecutions fell. Other demands for staffing time competed for attention. With limited investigative and prosecution resources, devoting more resources to prosecuting immigration offenses inevitably had meant fewer resources were available to pursue other types of federal offenses such as drug offenses, weapons, and white-collar crimes.

More here.


Have student protests gotten more inward-facing? And if so, why? Conor Friedersdorf and others offer some theories in this Twitter thread:


Accentuating the positive, for a change:


  • Is it just me, or does the culture war get dumber and dumber?

  • Sigh: