Federal drug-trafficking prosecutions along the southwest border dropped to their lowest level in nearly two decades this summer as the Trump administration pushed its “zero tolerance” crackdown on illegal immigration that separated thousands of children from their parents, USA Today reports. The decision to prosecute everyone caught entering the U.S. illegally flooded federal courts with thousands of cases, most of them minor immigration violations that resulted in no jail time and a $10 fee. As prosecutors and border agents brought those immigrants to court, the number of people they charged under drug-trafficking laws dropped by 30 percent along the border. In June and July, federal prosecutors charged fewer people with drug-trafficking violations than in any month since at least 2001. The numbers rose in August but remained lower than the previous summer.
The administration cited keeping drug smugglers and other criminals out of the U.S. as a reason for tighter restrictions along the Mexican border. Announcing plans to deal with a growing toll of opioid deaths, President Trump said in March that “drug traffickers kill so many thousands of our citizens every year. And that’s why my Department of Justice will be seeking so many much tougher penalties than we’ve ever had.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed prosecutors in five federal judicial districts spanning parts of four states along the Mexican border to seek criminal charges against everyone caught attempting to enter the U.S. illegally, even if it meant setting aside other priorities. “There’s no doubt in my mind that serious federal felony offenses are being declined because of the additional resources being spent on people crossing the southwest border,” said John Sandweg, a former acting chief of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “You’d think the emphasis would be on drug traffickers.”