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Criminal Charges Against Immigration ‘Caravan' Members Prompts Criticism, Questions

NBC 7 Investigates looks into the Justice Department announcement stating the arrest of 11 alleged "caravan" members, accused of crossing the border illegally near San Ysidro, without asking for asylum.

Scores of criminal cases against alleged illegal border crossers are routinely and quietly filed every month by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego. 

But the so-called Migrant Caravan from Central America is a political flash-point. 

That’s one reason why the Trump Administration issued a news release from Justice Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. Monday night, announcing the arrest of 11 "caravan" members accused of crossing the border illegally near San Ysidro, without asking for asylum. 

“The United States will not stand by as our immigration laws are ignored and our nation’s safety is jeopardized,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. 

A federal law enforcement official told reporters the information about the defendants’ participation in the Caravan “... was uncovered during routine immigration inspection and questioning.” 

NBC 7 Investigates took a closer look at the criminal complaints filed and found the documents include details about the defendant’s country of origin, and, in some cases, their hoped-for destination inside the United States. 

But none of the 11 charging documents include an admission or any information alleging that the suspect had traveled north with the caravan. 

The complaints state U.S. Border Patrol agents witnessed 29 immigrants cross illegally, and detained all of them. Only 11 of the 29 immigrants have been criminally charged with illegal entry. 

The Justice Department declined to answer questions posed by NBC 7 Investigates about why the other 18 suspects have not been charged with illegal entry. 

On Tuesday, one of the Caravan organizers pointed out one of those arrested and charged is from Mexico. Alex Mensing of Pueblo Sin Fronteras (City Without Borders) said no one in the Caravan is from Mexico. 

Mensing also insisted that his group follows the law, and insists that its members enter the U.S. legally, by surrendering and requesting asylum at the official San Ysidro crossing. 

"In no way, shape or form has this Caravan encouraged anyone to cross illegally,” Mensing said. “If anything, we've convinced some people to stay in Mexico because they've learned how difficult it is to seek asylum in the United States."

Immigration attorney Saman Nasseri told NBC 7 Investigates immigration officials and federal prosecutors have wide discretion in filing criminal charges against immigrants apprehended while crossing the border illegally. 

But Nasseri said the controversial Caravan may have politicized that process. 

“Caravan organizers trying to send a message, saying, ‘We're coming to America.’ But the Border Patrol, the President, and the Administration are sending their own message back, saying, ‘OK, if you're going to come, we're going to prosecute you,’" Nasseri said. 

One of the charging documents reveals three of the 29 suspects who crossed illegally came from India. 

Those three were among the group of 18 illegal crossers who have not been criminally charged. 

Immigration attorney Nasseri said that's not unusual, because immigrants come to our border from around the world, looking to enter the U.S. legally, or not.

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