Immigration enforcement arrests in the United States have dropped dramatically in the last year as the Biden administration shifted its enforcement priorities to focus on people in the country without legal status who have committed serious crimes, officials said Friday.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in its annual report, which covered the first eight months of President Joe Biden’s tenure, that total immigration arrests were down nearly 40% from the previous year, while the number of people apprehended for “aggravated felonies” nearly doubled.
Total deportations fell nearly 70% to 59,011, the lowest in the agency’s history, owing in part to the use of a public health order issued during the pandemic to expel people without formal deportation proceedings.
Officials portray this strategy as an efficient use of limited law enforcement resources, but it puts the administration in a bind between critics, primarily on the right, who want more apprehensions and progressive Democrats who have called for a dramatic reduction in ICE’s mission, if not elimination entirely.
At the very least, it represents a departure from the strategy pursued by former President Donald Trump, who directed ICE early on to apprehend anyone who was in the country illegally regardless of other circumstances.
“As the data in the annual report reflects, ICE’s officers and special agents focused on cases that delivered the greatest law enforcement impact in communities across the country while upholding our nation’s values,” acting Director Tae Johnson said in a statement announcing the results.
ICE said its Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations arrested 74,082 noncitizens in what it called a “rebalanced” approach, a combination of people referred to the agency by Customs and Border Protection and people detained “at large” in the country.
This figure is down from 103,603 in the 2019 fiscal year, which was down 28 percent from the previous year due to policies put in place at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as using the public health order to quickly turn back people stopped at the border without giving them the opportunity to seek asylum.
ICE reported that nearly half of all arrests and deportations since Biden took office involved “serious criminals,” defined by the administration as people convicted of both felonies and “aggravated felonies,” without providing a more detailed breakdown.
ICE has changed not only who it targets, but also where it operates. Last year, the administration directed the agency to limit enforcement actions in schools, hospitals, and other sensitive locations.
According to the agency’s statement, the “public safety impact has been dramatic,” with the number of monthly arrests of aggravated felons increasing by 53% from the previous year under President Barack Obama and by 51% on average during the Trump administration.
Apprehensions included some carried out as part of a sex offender initiative, which resulted in the arrest of 495 people, up from 194 the previous year, according to ICE.
Trump, whose administration has taken hundreds of steps to limit both legal and illegal immigration, directed ICE to apprehend anyone who was in the country illegally. In June 2019, he tweeted, “Next week, ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illegally entered the United States.”
It didn’t happen, though. Total deportations were higher under the first term of Obama than under Trump in part because many cities and states, opposed to his administration’s approach to immigration, refused to cooperate with ICE on removals.