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Home / Press Release / New Analysis Reveals Increase in Prosecution of Asylum Seekers Under Trump Admin 
July 20, 2017

New Analysis Reveals Increase in Prosecution of Asylum Seekers Under Trump Admin 

New York City—Human Rights First today released an analysis that includes new statistics documenting the rise in criminal prosecution of asylum seekers and migrants under the Trump Administration, following a series of directives issued by the president. 

“Seeking asylum is not a crime. Rather than spend time and resources prosecuting vulnerable individuals fleeing violence and persecution, the administration should focus on migration management measures that comport with U.S. human rights and refugee protection legal obligations,” said Human Rights First’s Olga Byrne. “The United States has the tools to effectively manage its borders without trampling on due process and human rights.” 

On January 25, 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order calling on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to make the criminal prosecution of immigration offenses a “high priority”—notwithstanding the fact that criminal prosecutions for immigration offenses already made up more than half of all federal prosecutions nationwide. These directives fail to mention U.S. treaty obligations that prohibit the penalization of refugees for illegal entry or presence—protections that were created in the wake of World War II, when many nations treated refugees who sought asylum in their countries or fled on invalid travel documents as “illegal” entrants.  

Last week Customs and Border Protection’s Tucson Sector reported an increase in referrals for criminal prosecution of individuals—including asylum seekers—who cross the U.S. southern border for the first time. Human Rights First notes that this practice increases the likelihood that individuals coming to the United States to seek asylum—a legal act—are penalized, detained in federal prisons, and in some cases deported without a chance to have their asylum claims heard in violation of U.S. legal and moral obligations.   

Today’s issue brief includes statistics and analysis that demonstrate the skyrocketing rate of prosecution for "illegal entry" and "illegal reentry” including: 

  • Prosecutions for illegal entry, illegal reentry, and other immigration-related violations constituted 52 percent of all federal prosecutions in fiscal year 2016; 
  • From April to May 2017, immigration prosecutions increased by 27 percent;
  • In May 2017, federal prosecutors began criminally prosecuting first-time entrants with illegal entry through Tucson’s Operation Streamline. During the same month, illegal entry and illegal reentry constituted 93 percent of charges brought by U.S. prosecutors in U.S. magistrate courts; and.
  • In June 2017, a Border Patrol representative told a Human Rights First researcher that the agency has moved to implement a “zero-tolerance” policy, meaning that everyone apprehended, with few exceptions (e.g., minors, family units), will be prosecuted—including asylum seekers. 
  • A Human Rights First researcher who observed numerous criminal prosecutions in Tucson, Arizona, found that of over three hundred prosecutions observed, in all but a few, people were criminally charged, convicted, and sentenced for illegal entry or reentry, even when defendants indicated they came to the United States to seek asylum or due to their fear of return to their home country.  

The analysis also provides a number of of case examples of asylum-seekers caught up in this new policy. 

Human Rights First notes that the increased rates of prosecutions have a particularly profound impact on asylum seekers. In these cases, the experience of criminal prosecution may prevent traumatized individuals from pursuing their claims all together, and can exacerbate trauma and other mental health conditions. 

Today’s issue brief includes the following recommendations for the Trump Administration, including that the administration should roll back plans to increase criminal prosecutions for illegal entry, the Department of Homeland Security should stop referring, and the DOJ should stop prosecuting asylum seekers for criminal for illegal entry.

“The recent increase in criminal prosecutions for asylum seekers is particularly disgraceful at a time when the majority of people arriving at the southern border are fleeing violence and persecution,” noted Byrne.

For more information or to speak with Byrne, contact Corinne Duffy at [email protected] or 202-370-3319.