US Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday ordered federal prosecutors take a more severe stance against first-time illegal border crossers.
First time offenders are normally deported back to Mexico shortly after being caught, but Sessions wants them to face harsher punishment.
Border arrests surged 37 percent from February to March this year, hitting 50,308. The figure is more than triple the same period last year, but is still below the periodic surges during former President Barack Obama's second term and far lower than the 1990s and 2000s.
Sessions said "a crisis has erupted" on the border and called for a "zero-tolerance" policy.
He issued a more softly worded directive last year that addressed a larger number of border crimes.
National Guard deployed
The directive came after President Donald Trump ordered thousands members of the National Guard reserve military force help secure the border.
Trump promised during his 2016 election campaign to end the practice of leniency against first time offenders known as "catch and release.”
Immigration authorities have been hampered by a shortage of space to house detainees, so the military has been ordered to make space available.
The American Civil Liberties Union criticized Sessions' latest directive. "This will be assembly-line justice, where large numbers of defendants are forced through the system without adequate time to consult counsel," it said in a statement.
aw/bw (AP, Reuters)