Sessions to address immigration at border sheriffs meeting

In this Friday, April 21, 2017, file photo, United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions stands near a secondary border fence during a news conference at the U.S.-Mexican border next to the Brown Field Border Patrol Station in San Diego. Sessions is scheduled to speak about immigration to a meeting of sheriffs, Wednesday, April 11, 2018, in Las Cruces, N.M. (Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP, File)

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) - As thousands of National Guard troops deploy to the Mexico border, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions plans to bring his firm stance on immigration enforcement to New Mexico where a group of Southwest border sheriffs are meeting Wednesday.

Sessions will speak in Las Cruces at the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition Annual Spring Meeting with the Southwestern Border Sheriff's Coalition, which is made up of 31 sheriff's departments from Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Their counties are located within 25 miles (40 kilometers) of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Immigrant rights activists promised to protest Sessions' visit on Wednesday, as they rejected his past characterization of the border region during a 2017 visit to El Paso, Texas, as "ground zero" in the Trump administration's fight against cartels, and human traffickers.

"He treated our home like a war zone, referring to it as 'ground zero,'" said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso. "He was wrong then, and he is wrong now."

El Paso is some 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Las Cruces.

Sessions' trip to Las Cruces, a city about an hour north of the border, comes as construction begins nearby on 20 miles (32 kilometers) of steel fencing that officials say is a part of President Donald Trump's promised wall.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have described the new, heightened barrier as a structure that will be harder to get over, under and through than the old post and rail barriers that line the stretch of sprawling desert west of the Santa Teresa port of entry.

Sessions has issued an order directing federal prosecutors to put more emphasis on charging people with illegal entry, citing a "crisis" on the border.

A 37 percent increase in illegal border crossings in March brought more than 50,000 immigrants into the United States, which was triple the number of reported illegal border crossings in the same period last year. It was still far lower, however, than the surges during the last years of the Obama administration and prior decades.

The attorney general's "zero-tolerance" for border-crossing prosecutions calls for taking action against people who are caught illegally entering the United States for the first time. In the past, such offenses have been treated as misdemeanors.

He also recently set quotas for immigration judges to reduce enormous court backlogs, saying they must complete 700 cases a year to earn a satisfactory grade. The quotas take effect Oct. 1.