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How The Trump Administration's 'Zero Tolerance' Immigration Policy Is Playing Out In California


Next we're going to take a closer look at how the Trump Administration's new zero tolerance policy against illegal immigration is playing out in California. The administration says it plans to criminally prosecute anyone who crosses the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. That is a change from long-standing practice of simply turning back first-time offenders with no criminal records. As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, there are plenty in the region who welcome the crackdown.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: As a general rule, the farther you travel away from the densely populated California coast, the more conservative the views get. In the deserts east of San Diego where the sprawl gives way to horse farms and ranches, Pine Valley is a tiny blip of a town. It's near a Border Patrol checkpoint along Interstate 8.

CORY PETERSON: Good morning. How are you?

SIEGLER: Major's Diner is a popular hangout for Border Patrol agents on break and the many retirees who have settled here lately, like Cory Peterson.

PETERSON: Might as well enforce it, you know, and keep the riffraff out as much as you can.

SIEGLER: Peterson says the Trump administration's zero tolerance means they're just following the laws on the books.

PETERSON: I feel like they should've done it a long time ago.

SIEGLER: Dianne Jacob has represented this area on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors since 1993. She says drug and human smuggling over the border has gotten more sophisticated and dangerous.

DIANNE JACOB: And we're not just talking about Mexican nationals. We're talking about people from other countries coming across to here. And their motives are not pure.

SIEGLER: Jacob says it's not like it was back in the '70s when she was a schoolteacher here when most people were just crossing the border looking for a job. She still has some sympathy for those folks.

JACOB: Somebody that's, say, coming over for work - it's wrong. It's illegal. You know, it's the law. But if they come across once just to find work, then, hey, give them a break.

SIEGLER: Jacob welcomes the Trump administration's crackdown. But like a lot of Republican leaders along the border, her tone on zero tolerance is nuanced.

JACOB: I'm not sure that the policy to do that could be effective just because of the resources that would be needed to prosecute.

SIEGLER: And she's not the only one asking that question. Ev Meade directs the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute. He points out that there is already a huge backlog of immigration cases on the order of 700,000.

EV MEADE: They would be taking on potentially thousands of prosecutions, and they would be thousands of prosecutions that would go into the regular court system. And they'd also have to provide counsel and defense counsel for all these folks.

SIEGLER: Meade says this could distract prosecutors from the serious criminal immigration cases. He thinks zero tolerance is mostly optics.

MEADE: It's the sort of shadow play of politics. It's, you know, making a claim to particular political constituencies in the United States that the administration is tough on the border and tough on immigration.

SIEGLER: Not so, says Dianne Jacob.

JACOB: I don't think it's optics, not with this administration. I think this administration means business, and I think that's good.

SIEGLER: Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently rushed 35 more criminal prosecutors down to the southwest border and assigned 18 more immigration judges to deal with the backlog. Now, that might not make a big dent, but it could send a strong message of deterrence to people who are trying to cross illegally or showing up at the ports of entry asking for asylum.

The administration's cause celeb was the recent highly publicized caravan of Central American asylum-seekers that were held up at the border in Tijuana. Despite all of the drama, most of the caravan has now been allowed into the U.S. detention system. And here in Tijuana today, only a handful of the members are still in limbo.

In this cafe, families are sitting on couches, looking stressed as they wait to talk to pro bono attorneys.

ERIKA PINHEIRO: (Speaking Spanish).

SIEGLER: Attorney Erika Pinheiro is advising them to apply for asylum here in Mexico instead. They either don't have a strong enough case for the U.S. or don't want to be separated from their families. So it would appear then that the zero tolerance is having a deterrent effect. But Pinheiro isn't convinced.

PINHEIRO: I've personally spoken with thousands of asylum-seekers. And despite the advisals that, you know, you're going to be detained; your case might be rushed, the people who still make the decision to go tell me that if they stay, they'll lose their lives.

SIEGLER: Pinheiro says desperate people will try to cross no matter how difficult it becomes. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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