WASHINGTON — Arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants away from the U.S. border dropped this past year, according to government data released on Wednesday, a sharp contrast to the “millions” of deportations that President Trump promised this summer.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested about 143,000 immigrants in the country’s interior between Oct. 2018 and Sept. 2019, 10 percent fewer than they did the previous fiscal year. That’s the lowest level of arrests since Mr. Trump took office, ICE officials said Wednesday.
Deportations from the interior also declined 10 percent, from 95,360 to 85,958.
Matthew Albence, the acting director of ICE, attributed the declines in enforcement to the reallocation of resources to the border with Mexico, where a surge in asylum-seeking migrants has taxed federal resources. In May, authorities arrested more than 144,000 migrants at the border, the highest monthly total in more than a decade.
“As a direct result of what happened at the border, we had to deploy resources which resulted in fewer arrests in the United States,” Mr. Albence said.
ICE agents often assist border officials with transporting, processing and deporting migrants at the border. Of the 267,258 immigrants deported by ICE at the border and in the interior of the United States, 68 percent were migrants arrested by border agents. Immigration officials are also permitted to fast-track deportations at the border, an option not open to those caught in the interior of the United States. The administration is currently fighting in the courts to expand such “expedited removal.”
Mr. Trump has pushed for the Department of Homeland Security to pursue aggressive policies to restrict immigration into the United States and deport those without legal status. But his administration still lags behind the Obama administration, which removed 409,849 people in 2012, a record high.
In June, Mr. Trump blindsided many immigration officials when he announced on Twitter that ICE was preparing to “begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States.” The president and Mark Morgan, who was acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the time, said that upcoming nationwide raids would sweep up families that had recently crossed the border.
That operation proved largely unsuccessful. Just a few dozen immigrants were arrested in the immediate weeks after the raids.
Mr. Albence said on Wednesday that his agency has deported more than 5,700 migrants who came to the United States with a relative in 2019, up from 2,711 in the previous year.
As deportations and arrests dropped in the last year, the population held in ICE jails continued to soar because of migrants apprehended at the border and the administration’s efforts to restrict the number of immigrants released into the public.
On an average day, more than 50,000 immigrants were in ICE custody in 2019, up 19 percent from the previous year. More than 3.2 million immigrants without permanent legal status have been released into society with their cases ongoing with ICE. The immigration court backlog also exceeded more than one million cases earlier this year.
“That says there’s an awful lot of people in the country who are here at the sufferance of the government waiting to see what happens to their cases,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Critics say the administration is still focused too heavily on deporting immigrants who have minor violations and do not pose a security threat. Some Democrats and immigration advocates have called for ICE to be abolished, criticizing its tactics of detaining immigrants in courthouses and arresting hundreds in work-site raids.
The investigative arm of ICE, Homeland Security Investigations, has also come under fire recently for creating a fake university to recruit hundreds of foreign-born students who sought to remain in the country under false pretenses, then detain many of them.
Mr. Albence pointed to “the challenges we’re facing by so-called sanctuary cities” as part of the reason for the drop in arrests and deportations. Those localities refuse to cooperate with ICE requests to turn over undocumented immigrants held in local custody.
Mr. Albence said such requests from ICE reduce threats to public safety, but multiple studies have found no evidence of a link between illegal immigration and crime.
In the final years of the Obama administration, ICE prioritized removing undocumented immigrants with criminal histories. Mr. Trump, however, signed an executive order in 2017 that directed agents to not be selective with deportations. Of the 143,099 immigrants arrested by ICE last year, 64 percent had been convicted of a crime.
While administration officials have highlighted violent crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, most of the criminal convictions of those deported were traffic offenses or driving while under the influence.
“These are not crimes people would consider very significant, the big ones people get up in arms about,” said Ms. Brown, a former Customs and Border Protection official. “They talk a lot about homicide and sex abuse cases, but the numbers show the majority of people with criminal violations are lesser offenses.”