Skip to content

Watch Immigrant Prosecutions Spike to Their Highest Level Under Trump

Mapping of the southern border shows a jump in immigration enforcement around the time the attorney general announced a zero tolerance policy.
An animated map shows the criminal prosecutions of undocumented immigrants between January and April 2018.
An animated map shows the criminal prosecutions of undocumented immigrants between January and April 2018. Esri/TRAC

In early April, Jeff Sessions instituted a “zero tolerance” policy mandating that U.S. district attorneys located at the Southwest border prosecute every person who entered the country without proper authorization—to the maximum extent of the law.

According to data gathered by TRAC, the policy is likely having an immediate and discernible impact: Immigrants are being prosecuted more than ever before under the Trump administration. April saw 8,298 immigrants being prosecuted for a federal crime, a 30 percent increase since March.

This is an even more dramatic increase from the first four months of last year: In January to April of 2017, prosecutions accounted for 14,785 apprehended individuals; compared to 24,794 new cases during the same period in 2018.

After Sessions’ zero-tolerance announcement in April 2018, criminal prosecutions increased in all five federal judicial districts along the Southwest border: Texas South, Texas West, New Mexico, Arizona, and California South.

But New Mexico saw the sharpest proportional increase of 110 percent between January and April: Prosecutions jumped from 536 in January to 1,181 cases in April. In raw numbers, the district of Texas West––which includes the cities of Austin, Del Rio, El Paso, Midland, and Pecos/Alpine––saw the highest spike from 1,357 in January to 2,767 in April.

Arizona, by contrast, did not see a significant increase in the number of prosecutions. But one of its cities, Tucson, has long had one of the highest rates of prosecutions. In April, despite the increases elsewhere, Tucson had the greatest share of new initiated legal proceedings of any southwest border city, at 1,392, followed by Las Cruces, with 1,095.

Federal District/SeatTotalJan 2018Feb 2018Mar 2018Apr 2018
Southwest Border24,7945,1914,9376,3688,298
Arizona
       Phoenix5119794157163
       Tucson4,4951,0658961,1421,392
       Yuma649262123145119
California, South
       El Centro575115166166128
       San Diego1,582315304374589
New Mexico
       Albuquerque18226313986
       Las Cruces2,9925375558051,095
Texas, South
       Brownsville646159124140223
       Corpus Christi336755280129
       Houston51301
       Laredo3,025552741971761
       McAllen2,736625557713841
      Victoria115114
Texas, West
       Austin8412151344
       Del Rio3,1155845709371,024
       El Paso2,751706596555894
       Midland30120
       Pecos/Alpine1,09655108128805

April marks the highest rate of criminal prosecutions in the Trump administration. But in the last 11 years, there have been four other months with even greater numbers, all of them during the Obama and Bush administrations. The month with the highest number of prosecutions was September 2008, with 9,893. In second, December 2012 with 9,268; and in third September 2014, with 8,857.

This isn’t the first time the federal government has instated a zero-tolerance policy for unauthorized border crossings. The first one was enacted during George W. Bush’s administration under the name of “Operation Streamline” in December 2005, which continued to be an official policy under Obama.

According to TRAC, Operation Streamline––along with an increasing number of recently hired border agents, apprehensions, and pending court cases––added a large number of new proceedings to several courts seated along the Southwest border, which were already flooded with unattended, unprocessed, and pending cases.

Even though criminal prosecutions under Trump still remain lower than those under Obama or Bush, experts at TRAC expect a progressive increase as the zero-tolerance policy continues to go into effect. “[Prosecutions] could well continue to build as the policy is more fully implemented,” the report says.