Major Swings in Immigration Criminal Prosecutions during Trump Administration
(18 Dec 2020) Immigration enforcement policies enacted by the Trump administration along the U.S.-Mexico border has contributed to notable fluctuations in the number of immigration-related prosecutions in federal courts since January 2017.

Detailed case-by-case government records obtained by TRAC after successful litigation show that in early 2018, the number of federal prosecutions for all immigration-related charges climbed sharply and crested 12,000 for the first time in May after the Department of Justice's "zero-tolerance" policy went into effect. The zero-tolerance policy directed prosecutors to charge immigrants who allegedly entered the country unlawfully with a federal crime. Then, in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a sudden across-the-board decline in federal prosecutions of all types, not just immigration. But as non-immigration prosecutions rebounded, immigration-related prosecutions remain uncharacteristically low due in large part to Customs and Border Protection's policy to quickly expel immigrants back to Mexico rather than detain and prosecute them.

In October 2020, for instance, the entire federal court system recorded just 16 new cases for unlawful entry. In October 2019, that number was 3,453, and in October 2018 that number was 8,713. It appears, then, that the diversion of immigrants from detention and prosecution to expulsion is causing the number of unlawful entry prosecutions to completely bottom out since July. Unlawful reentry prosecutions have increased somewhat to over 1,000 since August but still nowhere close to the 3,260 from October 2019. Harboring prosecutions seem to be the only one of the top three most common immigration charges that appears to have recovered, with 459 in October 2020—well within the 300-500 new cases that the federal courts see each month.

TRAC also found notable variation among the five federal court districts along the U.S.-Mexico border where the bulk of unlawful entry, unlawful reentry, and harboring charges are filed. Prosecutions in the Southern District of California and the Southern and Western Districts of Texas reveal patterns that are the most consistent with national trends, while the Districts of Arizona and New Mexico do not mirror these same patterns, particularly for illegal reentry prosecutions. This serves as a reminder that prosecutions along the southwest border can vary a great deal geographically, because prosecutions are contingent upon various factors including the overall flows of migrants crossing the border at various points as well as changed enforcement priorities and practices.

In this report, TRAC takes a closer look at these data to understand how the Trump administration's immigration enforcement policies have shaped trends in immigration-related prosecutions in federal courts along the US-Mexico border over the past nearly four years. We focus specifically on the three most common charges—unlawful entry, unlawful reentry, and harboring—to understand how immigration enforcement policies affect the workload of prosecutors and judges in federal courts along the border.

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