Immigration Enforcement Surges Under Trump
ICE arrests sharply increase even as overall deportations drop — due to reduced illegal crossings
Immigration authorities have deported fewer people under President Donald Trump, but enforcement has spiked, according to data obtained by LifeZette from Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
These seemingly contradictory trends are both likely true because of declining border crossings, according to an analysis of ICE statistics. The statistics show the United States has removed 54,471 illegal immigrants in January, February and March, a slight decrease from the 55,403 who were returned to their country of origin during the first three months of last year.
“They’re probably still encountering about the same number of people, but they’re able to take action on more of them … This is a return to traditional immigration enforcement.”
That decrease is due entirely to an 18.5 percent decrease in deportations to Mexico. Among illegal immigrants from the rest of the world, deportations have increased 30 percent, to 25,585. ICE officials said the deportations figures include people caught by Customs and Border Protection officers and handed over to ICE. Border crossings from Mexico have declined dramatically since Trump took office.
In another sign that interior immigration enforcement has been stepped up, as Trump promised, ICE reported that it arrested 21,362 people from January 20 — when the president took the oath of office — to March 13. That is a 32.7 percent increase over the same period in 2016.
“That’s a good metric to indicate interior enforcement activity,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies. “They’re probably still encountering about the same number of people, but they’re able to take action on more of them … This is a return to traditional immigration enforcement.”
Under the policies of former President Barack Obama, ICE officials had narrow criteria for which illegal immigrants could be taken into custody. Both the deportation and arrest figures indicate that has changed.
Only 53.2 percent of illegal immigrants who have been deported so far this year have criminal records, compared with 60.2 percent sent home during the first three months of 2016. Among ICE arrests, the number of people without criminal records more than doubled, from 2,278 to 5,441. Non-criminals made up a quarter of all ICE arrests, up from 14 percent in 2016.
Vaughan said the non-criminal category of ICE arrests and deportations also is somewhat misleading because it includes people charged with crimes but not convicted, for whatever reason, and people with pending charges whom officials decide to deport rather than prosecute.
But Vaughan and others agreed this does mean that ICE officers are not looking the other way when they encounter other illegal immigrants as they search for high-priority targets.
“It seems to indicate that the Trump administration is casting a wider net,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform. “It also makes clear that the law will be enforced across the board, just as any other law enforcement agency would.”
Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism for NumbersUSA, said the change implemented by Trump brings renewed “credibility” to the immigration system. Focusing only on criminals destroys the deterrence for illegal immigration, he said.
“That just sends the message that it’s okay to be in the country illegally as long as you don’t commit a crime … That’s sending the wrong message,” he said.
Mehlman compared it to the Internal Revenue Service conducting routine audits or police running radar on the highway. Officers do not have to pull over every speeder to slow down traffic, he said.
“Sure, your priorities are the bad guys, but at the same time, you want to make clear that if you’re here illegally, you’re going to be deported,” he said.
Critics of aggressive immigration enforcement contend that it is proof of ICE agents running amok.
"I think the instruction is, 'Go about your business in terms of apprehending immigrants,'" American Civil Liberties Union senior legislative counsel Joanne Lin told the Washington Post.. "It's wherever they can find them."
But enforcement advocates said arrest numbers likely would have increased by more than 5,000 if that were the case.
"You're not seeing massive roundups that people are always talking about," Chmielenski said.
Vaughan, too, rejected the caricature of indiscriminate raids.
"That isn't how ICE operates," she said. "That's what enforcement opponents would like people believe. But that's not reality."