The number of immigrants arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents is falling, according to agency statistics released Thursday, the latest sign that a border surge is diverting enforcement efforts away from the U.S. interior, dealing a blow to the Trump administration’s deportation goals.
Arrests by ICE agents fell 12 percent to 34,546 between Oct. 1 and Dec. 29 of last year, the most recent period for which data is available. Though deportations by ICE rose 10 percent during that period in comparison with the previous year, the increase came from soaring numbers of detentions at the border — not as a result of more arrests by ICE in the U.S. interior.
Nathalie Asher, a senior ICE official who coordinates detention and deportation operations, said an “explosion” of people crossing the border has forced ICE to reallocate resources.
“What you’re looking at is our interior arrests have been affected,” Asher told reporters, noting that she has had to redirect resources to what she sees as the first priority, “addressing what has been occurring and continues to occur at an alarming rate at the border.”
The declining arrest numbers are a major change from the initial phase of the Trump presidency, when interior arrests rose by more than 20 percent and ICE officials said immigration violators “should look over your shoulder” in fear of arrest.
That aggressive stance, along with public arrests outside courthouses and other sensitive locations, triggered a backlash among immigrant activists and some Democrats who called for the agency to be abolished.
But the statistics released Thursday indicate the agency has diverted resources to cope with what Asher described as a “crushing” volume of arrivals at the border, especially parents bringing children. ICE has 6,000 agents assigned to arrest and deportation efforts, Asher said.
In February, U.S. authorities detained more than 76,000 unauthorized border-crossers, and Homeland Security Security Kirstjen Nielsen said she expects nearly 100,000 migrants will attempt to enter the country this month.
ICE has been so overwhelmed that it is releasing thousands of detainees into the United States each week, issuing some of them GPS tracking devices and others little more than a summons to appear in court months later.
In the past three months, ICE has released 107,000 migrant family members, Asher said.
In El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, ICE has been dropping off new arrivals at bus stations and church shelters that have been struggling to find beds for them. Asher said ICE is working with cities and charities to help them cope with the needs of so many parents with children.
Court limits on the government’s ability to hold minors in immigration detention for more than 20 days mean that adults who arrive with a child are typically issued a court summons and released from custody.
ICE has approximately 2,500 beds available for parents with children at what the agency calls family residential centers, but U.S. officials said last week that the agency is in discussions to transition one of its main family facilities, the Karnes County Residential Center, into an adult-only immigration jail.
Asher said “on a regular basis, we’re having to look at our operational tempo in having to react to this influx at the border, so we are looking at a couple of our facilities and perhaps changing out the configurations as they currently are,” Asher said. “Nothing is set in stone.”
The latest ICE figures show 90 percent of arrestees had a criminal record or pending criminal charges, though the labels include nonviolent offenders and immigration violations.
That is a shift from the first year of Trump’s presidency, when noncriminal arrests were the fastest-growing category of ICE detainees.