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'Trump era' rolls on at Tucson's federal court, even with AG Jeff Sessions out

'Trump era' rolls on at Tucson's federal court, even with AG Jeff Sessions out

Despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ resignation last week, the crackdown on illegal immigration he set in motion at Tucson’s federal court continues.

U.S. District Court in Tucson saw dramatic shifts in who was prosecuted during Sessions’ 21-month tenure as attorney general, as well as seemingly small changes that profoundly impacted how prosecutions unfold. Those policies are outlasting Sessions’ tenure, at least until his permanent replacement is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Unless federal prosecutors in Tucson hear otherwise, “We’re going to continue to take the same route on policy,” said Cosme Lopez, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona. “What we were doing one week ago, we’re still doing this week.”

A look back on Sessions’ tenure since February 2017 shows thousands more border-crossing prosecutions in Tucson, harsher punishments for border-crossers and a more combative attitude toward humanitarian aid workers. As U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernardo P. Velasco put it in a recent court filing, the “prosecution climate” for border-related crimes in Tucson’s federal court has become “very aggressive” under the current administration.

“Trump era” at border

The source of the aggressive prosecutions lies in the broad framework for tougher border enforcement President Trump announced in January 2017. It fell to Sessions, a longtime border hawk in the U.S. Senate and a former U.S. attorney in Alabama, to turn the criminal side of that framework into a reality.

Just two months into Sessions’ tenure, he declared the arrival of the “Trump era” to the U.S.-Mexico border in an April 2017 speech in Nogales and directed federal prosecutors to take a hard-nosed approach to illegal border crossings.

The next month, first-time border-crossers reappeared in Operation Streamline, a fast-track prosecution program for border-crossers. The program in Tucson largely was reserved for repeat crossers in the last years of the Obama administration. But since May 2017, more than 10,000 first-time border-crossers were convicted of misdemeanors through Streamline, court calendars show.

Records from the court clerk’s office in Tucson showed Streamline prosecutions had declined for several years to about 10,000 in fiscal 2017 before spiking to 15,500 in the current fiscal year.

As misdemeanor convictions of first-time border-crossers rose, federal prosecutors in Tucson started filing felony charges under a provision of a border-crossing statute that was rarely used until early 2018.

By using that provision, prosecutors could bring felony charges against border-crossers after one or two illegal crossings, far fewer than in the past. Felony convictions often lead to longer prison sentences, court records show, as well as the potential for even longer sentences for future convictions. A review of court records by the Arizona Daily Star showed about 300 border-crossers were charged with felonies under the provision since January.

Even with nearly two months left in the calendar year, the total felony prosecutions in Tucson’s federal court already is 9 percent higher than all of 2017, court records show. Lopez, of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said his office now has 10 more prosecutors to help with the workload.

New target: aid groups

While prosecutors went after border-crossers, they also targeted a group that had long been a thorn in the side of the federal law enforcement on the border: Tucson-based humanitarian aid group No More Deaths.

In December 2017, federal prosecutors in Tucson brought misdemeanor charges against nine No More Deaths volunteers after they left supplies for border-crossers in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

In February, a No More Deaths volunteer in Ajo was indicted on a felony human-smuggling charge. The arrest came hours after the group released a report alleging Border Patrol agents destroyed thousands of water jugs left in desolate areas. Lawyers representing the volunteer, Scott Warren, claimed the arrest was retribution for the report.

On Nov. 7, Velasco said the “suspicion should be explored” and ordered the release of emails or texts sent to the two agents who had the aid station under surveillance the day of the arrest.

Perhaps the most widely-seen change made by Sessions came in April, when he told prosecutors to adopt a “zero-tolerance” policy for illegal border crossings. The policy led to the separations of more than 2,000 families after they crossed the border, including dozens of mothers and fathers begging magistrate judges in Tucson’s federal court to tell them where their children were.

While those cases brought scrutiny from activist groups and the news media, prosecutors in Tucson quietly added border-crossing charges to marijuana backpacker cases, one of the most common drug-smuggling cases in Southern Arizona, involving hundreds of cases each year.

As Sessions’ crackdown continues, the District of Arizona remains unique, as the only district in the country without an acting or confirmed U.S. attorney, almost 22 months since Trump’s inauguration.

Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or or on Twitter @CurtTucsonStar

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