ICE authorized just 20,858 arrests in the six months after the Biden administration announced new rules restricting which illegal immigrants could be targeted — or an average of just one arrest every two months for each deportation officer.
That’s down exponentially from the Trump years, when the rate averaged two arrests each month, and it’s even worse compared to the peak Obama years, when the ratio was about four arrests each month.
But even though U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it’s catching fewer people overall, it’s arresting more aggravated felons, which ICE says is proof the new rules are working to allow officers to focus on the most valuable targets.
In 5½ months after the Feb. 18 issuance of the new rules, ICE recorded 6,046 arrests of aggravated felons, compared to 3,575 during the pandemic-stricken 2020.
The government revealed the numbers in a court filing earlier this month as it sought to defend the new “priorities” guidance laying out guardrails on which immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally should be arrested or deported by federal officers.
Under the rules, only immigrants without documentation who are considered national security threats, recent border crossers or aggravated felons are automatic arrest and deportation priorities.
If officers want to target someone outside those categories, they must write up a justification and get preapproval.
ICE says from Feb. 18 to Sept. 16, it authorized 57 automatic national security arrests, 3,696 border cases, 9,918 felony or public safety cases. And higher-ups also approved 7,157 requests outside the automatic priorities. The agency has about 6,000 deportation officers, though not all of them are assigned to duties where they make regular arrests.
Reports early in the Biden administration had indicated arrests were falling, and the new numbers show it wasn’t just an early blip but rather a lasting trend, fueled by policy decisions.
“These numbers are shockingly low,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies. “They have accomplished their goal of abolishing immigration enforcement by memo.”
Falling arrests are just part of the Biden administration’s rewrite of immigration enforcement policy.
Ms. Vaughan has a report coming out soon that will show ICE’s deportations are also a fraction of what they were under the Trump and Obama administrations, averaging only a little over 3,000 a month for the six months after Inauguration Day.
That would be a decline of about 85% compared to 2019.
Meanwhile, immigration courts also are cutting immigrants who are in the country illegally free at unprecedented rates, The Washington Times reported earlier this month.
ICE declined to comment on the low arrest numbers, citing the ongoing legal challenges to the enforcement guidance.
Among other revelations from the documents, filed in federal court in Texas, are that about 90% of nonautomatic priority arrest requests are approved.
That’s a high number and ICE officials, apparently worried they appeared to be too “permissive,” said in fact there’s a “pre-vetting” system in place that ends up nixing unworthy arrest targets before they become official requests.
ICE also revealed that the “typical” official request takes an hour and nine minutes to get an authorization. The document does not say in how many cases a target escaped because of that delay.
Though it’s not specifically related to the arrest figures, the ICE document says in about 1 in 5 cases where a migrant requested to be released from custody or have a deportation stayed and a field office refused, the higher-ups in Washington stepped in to overrule the field office and order the lenient treatment.
Amanda Keaveny, a member of the board of governors for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the arrest numbers show ICE is making headway toward President Biden’s goal of marshaling resources toward only a small segment of the unauthorized population.
“I firmly believe this is an appropriate approach,” she said.
She said it is cutting down on heartrending cases of migrants who have been picked up and deported, leaving behind a spouse and children, with minor criminal records, or in some cases none at all, and only their illegal presence as a reason for ouster.
She said immigration laws already prioritize enforcement against serious criminals, and if the Biden team’s guidance is resulting in a rise in those arrests then things are working.
“If you’re going to focus on who has previously been considered by Congress the people who should be removed, then most definitely I think it’s meeting those goals,” Ms. Keaveny said.
ICE averaged about 31 daily authorized arrests for aggravated felons from Feb. 18 to Aug. 31. That’s up significantly from the 18 arrests made during the same period in 2020, and it’s even up slightly from the 27 daily arrests averaged from March 1 to Aug. 31, 2019, when the pandemic didn’t affect matters.
Ms. Vaughan said the rise doesn’t make sense given the collapse in other enforcement.
She said ICE officers are going to arrest any aggravated felon who comes across their radar no matter what, so the argument about focused resources doesn’t hold water.
She said it’s possible officers are just doing a more complete job of documenting when a target has an aggravated felony conviction.
In the past, when the aggravated felony wasn’t a requirement for arresting someone, agents were less likely to spend time documenting that as part of a case.
Now, she said, they may be more scrupulous because otherwise, they would have to jump through extra hoops to make the arrest.
Some immigrant-rights activists questioned why felons should be a target anyway.
Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center, said there are human stories behind each of those arrests, and those with felony convictions have, by definition, already served the sentence a regular court imposed for their crimes.
To then face arrest for civil immigration violations is cruel to their communities, she said.
“What these statistics don’t reveal are the negative impacts ICE enforcement policy has on communities by, for example, removing a family’s breadwinner, taking one or both parents away from a child during their formative years, or deporting community leaders,” she said. “These negative impacts have been shown to destabilize families and communities, for generations to follow.”
The Feb. 18 guidance was in effect through Sept. 30, when Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas issued new final rules that tweaked the guidance.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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