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April 06, 2018

Sessions' Zero Tolerance Policy Aims to Punish Asylum Seekers

New York City--Human Rights First condemned a new “zero tolerance” policy announced today by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that would punish vulnerable refugees seeking asylum at the southern border by subjecting them to increased prosecutions under criminal law even though they are seeking refugee protection. The new policy follows an April 2017 instruction to federal prosecutors, issued following the President's January 25 executive order on the border,  to prioritize cases of illegal entry and reentry along the southern border. 

“There is no crisis at the southern border. Sessions is sensationalizing normal trends in migration and the refugee crisis in Central America in order to punish those seeking protection through the asylum system. This policy is not only cruel, it violates U.S. treaty obligations and sets a poor example for the rest of the world,” said Human Rights First's Eleanor Acer. “Prosecuting asylum seekers is also a waste of government criminal justice and prosecutorial resources. The immigration and asylum systems are the appropriate places to handle these cases.”

Earlier this year, Human Rights First issued a report detailing alarming increases in criminal prosecutions of asylum seekers and migrants at the southern border under the Trump Administration. The administration’s tactics include referring asylum seekers for prosecution even after they've clearly stated a fear of return, separating families in order to begin criminal proceedings against parents, and pushing plea agreements that force asylum seekers to forego their claims for protection. The report also documented due process deficiencies impacting migrants and asylum seekers subjected to these flawed prosecutions. 

Today’s memo subverts U.S. treaty obligations that prohibit the penalization of refugees for unauthorized entry or presence—protections created in the wake of World War II after many nations treated refugees seeking asylum in their countries as “illegal” entrants. As a result, asylum seekers are subjected to a deeply dehumanizing system that punishes them for seeking protection and threatens to return them to countries where they will face persecution—violations of the Refugee Convention.

Human Rights First urges the Department of Justice to rescind this policy, refrain from subjecting asylum seekers to criminal prosecutions, and stop prosecuting migrants in ways that violate due process. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must stop referring asylum seekers for criminal prosecutions as well. In 2015 the Office of Inspector General of DHS raised concerns about Customs and Border Patrol's practice of referring asylum seekers for criminal prosecution, noting U.S. treaty obligations to refrain from penalizing refugees for their manner of entry or presence.  

For more information or to speak with Acer contact Mary Elizabeth Margolis at margolisme@humanrightsfirst.org.