Democracy Dies in Darkness

Fact Checker | Analysis

Trump's claim that recent immigration arrests reflect his enforcement policies

By Michelle Ye Hee Lee

February 15, 2017 at 3:00 AM

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

"We really have done a great job. We're actually taking people that are criminals — very, very, hardened criminals in some cases with a tremendous track record of abuse and problems — and we're getting them out and that's what I said I would do. … And I said at the beginning, we are going to get the bad ones, the really bad ones, we're getting them out and that's exactly what we're doing."
–Donald Trump, remarks in news briefing, Feb. 13, 2017

At a news briefing with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, President Trump answered a question about the security of the U.S.-Canada border. Trump pointed to immigration enforcement efforts under the new homeland security secretary, John Kelly, and a recent string of highly publicized immigration arrests.

Immigration enforcement was one of Trump's key campaign promises — to prioritize deporting undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes ("criminal aliens"). Trump pointed to the recent arrests as an example of doing what he promised, by getting the "bad ones" out of the country. Is he correct?

The Facts

On Feb. 6, 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) carried out "fugitive enforcement operations" in several regions of the country, targeting people who are  immigration enforcement priorities. These arrests aren't what are typically portrayed as "raids," like random or targeted workplace raids aimed at finding illegal workers.

More than 680 people were arrested in five cities (Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, New York and San Antonio) the week of Feb. 6, according to the Department of Homeland Security. DHS said individuals who were criminal aliens and "other immigration enforcement priorities" were arrested.

Arrests were reported in other cities, including Phoenix, where officials deported an undocumented woman who was ordered removed years ago. Although she had received her final order for deportation, she was allowed to stay in the country for several years as long as she checked in at set intervals with federal immigration officials.

Toward the end of former president Barack Obama's second term, the administration shifted its enforcement priorities so that the vast majority of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants would not be subject to immediate removal. The Obama administration narrowed its priorities to people who were convicted criminals, terrorism threats or who had recently entered the country.

On Jan. 25, President Trump signed an executive order expanding the priorities. The order included as priority undocumented people who were charged (but not convicted) of criminal offenses, have "committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense," and have "abused any program related to receipt of public benefits." People who were ordered for removal long ago but did not leave the country — like the Phoenix woman — are a priority under this order.

Kelly signaled that the arrests were part of routine operations and were not spurred by the executive order. However, immigration activists say the arrests are more severe than in recent years.

"ICE conducts these kind of targeted enforcement operations regularly and has for many years," according to Kelly's statement. "The focus of these enforcement operations is consistent with the routine, targeted arrests carried out by ICE's Fugitive Operations teams on a daily basis."

Kelly's statement said 75 percent of people arrested were criminal aliens who were convicted of crimes, including homicide, aggravated sexual abuse, drug trafficking and DUIs.

The other 25 percent included people who would not have been targeted in fugitive operations under Obama. It includes people who immigration advocates call "collateral" arrests — individuals with noncriminal convictions or years-old immigration violations and happened to be present when ICE agents arrived to arrest criminal aliens. According to anecdotes of recent arrests, undocumented people with traffic violations were subject to arrest.

"We had an environment in the last two years of the Obama administration where people who didn't have a serious criminal violation were not at a very high risk of deportation or almost no risk at all, because ICE was not prioritizing them," said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the nonpartisan think tank Migration Policy Institute. "It was a very rare event where someone who didn't have a felony or serious misdemeanor, or wasn't a recent arrival, was arrested. Now, it's not as rare."

Capps added, about the recent arrests: "It is as ICE described it: a routine type of enforcement action that's being done with a slightly different profile of people who have been arrested."

To put the 680 arrests in perspective: If the Trump administration continued arresting 680 people every week, that means 35,360 people would be arrested in fugitive operations in a year. That would bring the fugitive operation arrests back to the levels they were under the earlier years of Obama's administration, before the priorities were narrowed. In fiscal 2010, there were 35,774 arrests in fugitive operations and 39,466 such arrests in fiscal 2011.

The number of arrests decreased after fiscal 2011, under the narrowed priorities. The last coordinated, nationwide fugitive operation took place in March 2015, when 2,059 people were arrested under Operation Cross Check.

White House officials did not provide a comment by deadline, but we will update if they do.

The Pinocchio Test

Trump said that ICE is now targeting "very, very hardened criminals" and doing exactly what he had promised to do on the campaign trail.

But ICE has always targeted dangerous criminals in enforcement priorities. The recent arrests, however, did include people who would not have fallen under Obama's narrower enforcement priorities. But such people — which DHS has categorized as 25 percent of the arrests — had lesser charges and noncriminal convictions, and are not the "very, very hardened criminals" that Trump describes.

DHS may continue to release more information about the arrests and how they compare to previous efforts. If they do, we will update this fact check. In the meantime, Trump receives Two Pinocchios.

Two Pinocchios

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Michelle Ye Hee Lee is a national political enterprise and investigations reporter for The Washington Post.

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