While overall detentions skyrocket, numbers held in custody for serious crimes decrease.

If you’ve spent any amount of time listening to the debates surrounding immigration policy, you’ve likely heard the argument that an immigration crackdown would prevent dangerous criminals from crossing the border. Reasonable people can get behind this argument, saying that they wouldn’t want people who have committed serious crimes entering or remaining in the country.

This sentiment has been the current administration’s justification for its harsh immigration policies since the very beginning; however, a new nonpartisan report shows that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) isn’t actually prioritizing the detention and deportation of serious criminals, despite the sharp increase in the total number of people being detained.

The news might not come as a surprise to some, who have seen the administration’s policies as an unwarranted attack on immigrants from the start. But for others, the data provided in the report is directly at odds with the Trump administration’s purported goal of apprehending dangerous criminals.

Enforcement and Removal Operations

Overview of Current Policies

While the current administration has unquestionably focused on the “swift removal of unlawful entrants,” the explanation for these policies in large part has focused on “protect[ing] America from… cross-border crime.”

For instance, at the signing of H.R. 3401, the measure which provided funding for emergency humanitarian aid at the border, President Trump remarked, “I will say the Republicans do want border security.  The Democrats want open borders.  Open borders means tremendous crime. If you look, there was a report that came out where approximately 600 people in the last caravan were serious criminals.  I don’t want them in our country.”

In a policy memo released back in Februrary 2017, then Executive Associate Director of ICE Matthew Albence stated that officers should prioritize removal of those who have either committed a crime or could be charged with a crime. Now Acting Director of ICE, Albence is most widely known for his comment comparing family detention centers to “summer camps.”

Mark Morgan, Acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), has also stated that ICE operations have been “overhyped” and are actually meant to prioritize enforcement against “criminal aliens.”

Even without examining the statistics, though, these policies citing a focus on serious criminals are much broader than they initially seem. For example, Albence’s 2017 memo stated that while enforcement against “criminal aliens” is a priority, officers should “take enforcement action against all removable aliens encountered in the course of their duties.” Some have said that this policy might actually be harsher than the Trump administration would have planned, and it provides some insight into why enforcement against serious criminals is, in reality, no longer a priority.

Findings of the TRAC Report

The report, released by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) Immigration Project at Syracuse University, found that the number of overall detentions has increased by 22% from 2016 through 2018, with the largest increase in detentions being almost 40% for people who had absolutely no criminal convictions.

Figure 1. ICE Detaining Fewer with Serious Criminal Convictions, Sept 2016 vs Dec 2018.

Meanwhile, detentions for those who had been convicted of serious crimes fell by almost 17%, with the actual numbers of detentions for serious criminals decreasing by over 1,200 instances. At the end of 2016, people convicted of serious crimes made up almost 20% of ICE detainees. In just two years, that number dropped significantly to just 13%.

This trend has also been observable in immigration court filings. Back in 1999, court filings citing criminal activity as a basis for removal made up over 25% of deportability claims. By 2009, the percentage had dropped to 16%. Now, the projected percentage of filings citing criminal activity for 2019 is only 2.8%. In some courts, the number is particularly low at less than 0.5% of filings involving criminal activity. In Houston, for example, only 5 out of every 15,063 new filings cite a criminal record as a basis for removal—that’s just 0.03% of all cases.

Figure 2. Percent of Immigration Court Filings Seeking Removal Citing Criminal Activity.

Might it be that there are simply fewer criminals to apprehend? This explanation is very unlikely. Crime rates among immigrant populations are about the same as the rest of the U.S. population, if not slightly lower. And while violent crime rates in the U.S. did decrease in 2017, it was only by 0.9%, which is vastly out of proportion to the marked decrease in criminal detentions and immigration court filings seen in the same year.

The much more likely explanation is that ICE has prioritized detaining and removing as many undocumented immigrants as possible, and in doing so, it has turned its focus away from those who might actually pose a danger to society or national security.


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