A suspected immigrant is escorted by the U.S. Border Patrol to a vehicle near the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen.(Photo by Eddie Seal/Bloomberg)


Stepped-up immigration law enforcement in Texas under U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions‘ new “zero tolerance” policy may lead to more work for Texas lawyers who represent individuals in immigration matters.

“I can see that I would end up representing far more individuals in federal court for illegal entry and illegal re-entry,” said Jodi Goodwin, an immigration lawyer in Harlingen, located in the Rio Grande Valley.

On Monday, Sessions said during speeches in California and Arizona that the government would prosecute anyone illegally crossing into Texas or elsewhere on the southwest border and would separate children from parents. He first announced the zero-tolerance policy in April.

His remarks came on the heels of his announcement last week that his office would place a total of 35 new assistant U.S. attorneys, including eight in the Southern District of Texas, to handle an increase in illegal immigration cases.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas has one of the heaviest immigration dockets in the country, and the eight new prosecutors will be charged with handling improper entry, illegal re-entry, and alien smuggling cases, prosecutors said. In fact, U.S. Attorney Ryan Patrick of the Southern District of Texas said they will handle “multiple thousands” of illegal entry, illegal re-entry and smuggling cases a year.

Michelle Saenz-Rodriguez, an immigration lawyer in Dallas at Saenz-Rodriguez & Associates, said enforcement of the zero-tolerance policy means that every person who comes over the border is subject to criminal prosecution for illegal entry. Sessions’ directive, she said, has “everybody in a big tizzy.”

Prior to Sessions’ announcement, people who crossed the border were typically administratively processed and then deported, Goodwin said. But with everyone heading to criminal court under the zero-tolerance policy, there may be more demand for private attorneys to represent individuals in those cases.

“I can imagine the number of people that will be showing up for Magistrate Court every day is going to skyrocket,” Goodwin said.

The charge for a first-time illegal entry is a misdemeanor and lawyers from federal public defender offices typically represent individuals in Texas facing that charge, Saenz-Rodriguez said. Most people decline representation and plead guilty to that misdemeanor charge.

And while the charge for first-time illegal entry carries a maximum sentence of six months in prison, the magistrate judges who hear those misdemeanor cases usually sentence the people to time served, which may be as little as a day, according to Goodwin.

But illegal re-entry charges, which can be brought if the individual was previously deported, are a felony, the lawyers said.

It remains unclear what effect the zero-tolerance policy will have on federal public defenders’ offices, or whether they will be able to handle the expected increased caseload. Marjorie Meyers, the federal public defender in the Southern District of Texas, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Susan Bond, an immigration lawyer in Dallas who is chair of the State Bar of Texas immigration and nationality law section, said the Texas immigration bar is concerned about the impact that stepped-up enforcement will have on human rights.