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Sessions defends 'zero tolerance' border policy, new asylum restrictions

“Asylum was never meant to provide escape from all the problems people face every day around the world," Sessions said.
by Jane C. Timm /
Image: Jeff Sessions outlines Trump administration policies
Attorney General Jeff Sessions outlines Trump administration policies as he speaks to new immigration judges in Falls Church, Virgina, on Sept. 10, 2018.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy as "perfectly legitimate, moral and decent" during remarks to a new class of immigration judges in Falls Church, Virginia on Monday.

"No great and prosperous nation can have both a generous welfare system and great prosperity, and open borders. Such a policy is radical, it's dangerous, it's never been adopted here, or any other major nation that I am aware of, so it must be rejected out of hand, and the American people have done so," Sessions said.

His remarks come amid a major pushback to the "zero tolerance" immigration policy introduced earlier this year at the border — a policy that included separating parents from their children in order to prosecute the parents for illegal entry.

Session also told the new judges that Obama-era "incentives" encouraged migrants to abuse the asylum system, and said that his recent move to disqualify applicants who claim gang and domestic violence are a "correct interpretation" of the law.

"We all know that a lot of those crossing our borders are leaving a difficult life," Sessions said. "Asylum was never meant to provide escape from all the problems people face every day around the world."

Sessions claimed that "beginning in 2009," migrants spread the word that "by asserting fear they could remain within the United States one way or another."

"The results were entirely predictable. The number of illegal entrants have surged, credible fear claims have skyrocketed, and the percentage of asylum claims found meritorious by our judges have declined," he added.

The attorney general did not mention the growing violence and instability in Central America that has fueled the recent surges in asylum-seekers, or that those released in the U.S. during pending court proceedings are typically families and children. Advocates tell NBC News these are reasonable protections designed to keep kids out of prison, not loopholes.

The declining rate of successful claims long term is in part due to the declining rate of representation amid complex immigration proceedings, according to experts.

Sessions claimed Monday that the tough stance taken under President Donald Trump will be a deterrent.

“We will send a clear message to the world that the lawless practices are over. The world will know what our rules are, and great numbers will no longer undertake a dangerous journey,” Sessions said.

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