Deportations by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement fell sharply last year under President Biden to the lowest levels in the agency’s history despite record-high border crossings, according to statistics released Friday in an annual report.
But another gauge of ICE enforcement activity — immigration arrests in the U.S. interior — also showed a significant drop relative to historic averages. Officers working for ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) made about 74,082 administrative arrests during the 2021 fiscal year, down from 104,000 during fiscal 2020 and an average of 148,000 annually from 2017 through 2019.
Biden administration officials said the figure reflects the administration’s efforts to emphasize “quality over quantity” by directing ICE to prioritize immigrants who pose public safety and national security threats.
The report said ICE arrested 12,025 individuals last year with aggravated felony convictions, nearly double the 2020 total. The agency highlighted a targeted operation that arrested 495 “noncitizen sex offenders” from 54 different countries, more than twice the number taken into custody in 2020.
“As the annual report’s data 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 values as a nation,” Tae Johnson, the agency’s acting director, said in a statement.
The 59,011 deportations reported last year were the lowest total since 1995, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics. ICE, created in 2003, has more than 20,000 employees in its civil, criminal and legal operations and an annual budget of approximately $8 billion.
Biden campaigned for president promising a break with his predecessor’s aggressive enforcement approach and unabashed enthusiasm for mass immigration arrests. After taking office, Biden ordered a “pause” on deportations that upended the agency’s operations and left officers grumbling that their agency had been eliminated by administrative means.
Since then, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has issued new guidance to officers instructing them to prioritize national security and public safety threats as well as recent border-crossers, an approach the administration says has allowed it to better focus resources on serious criminals.
Mayorkas has also met personally with teams of ICE officers to urge them to use more discretion before making an arrest and adopt a more sympathetic approach toward immigrants who are not serious criminals and have been living for years in the United States.
Republicans have hammered the Biden administration over the decline in interior immigration arrests and deportations, and blamed the surge of new arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border on his more lenient policies. U.S. Customs and Border Protection detained 1.7 million border-crossers during the 2021 fiscal year, an all-time high.
Tom Homan, an acting ICE director under President Donald Trump, said the Biden administration has curbed immigration enforcement inside the United States at the behest of “radical leftists” who would like to abolish the agency.
“From day one, this administration has pushed policies that have made it effectively impossible to detain or deport around 90% of the illegal aliens currently in the United States, while at the same time releasing tens of thousands of illegal aliens into the country in the past year,” Homan, now a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said in a statement.
States such as Texas, Louisiana and Arizona have sued over the new enforcement priorities and are awaiting court rulings that could overturn them.
Mayorkas has also stopped detaining families and withdrew ICE from two county detention facilities in Massachusetts and Georgia that he said did not meet his standards. He also told Congress last year that he was concerned about the “overuse” of detention.
ICE holds growing numbers of immigrants at private facilities despite Biden’s campaign promise to end the practice.
The average daily number of ICE detainees plunged to about 19,200 during the 2021 fiscal year, the lowest level since 1999, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
Approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants reside in the United States, and the majority have been here for more than a decade, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Congressional Democrats have attempted to pass a bill that would make them permanent residents, but their efforts have stalled in the narrowly divided Senate.
Advocates for immigrants said they welcomed many of the Biden administration’s early changes, such as ending the travel ban and increasing the number of refugees allowed into the United States. But they said the most recent spending bill increases funding for immigration enforcement and complained that Biden has not kept his campaign promise to end privately run detention, which accounts for the majority of the ICE system.
“We really want to see some shifts,” said Silky Shah, executive director of the Detention Watch Network. U.S. officials “don’t need to put people seeking asylum in detention, period,” she added.
Shah said the government should stop detaining people for civil immigration violations, especially those who have already served their time for criminal offenses. “We don’t believe anybody should be detained,” she said. “What we need to do is reduce the system.”
ICE also deported 34 “known or suspected terrorists,” according to the report. But agency officials said during a briefing with reporters that they did not have additional information about the known or suspected terrorists, nor where they were taken into custody.
ICE has not had a Senate-confirmed director since the Obama administration. Biden nominated Sheriff Ed Gonzalez of Harris County, Tex., to the position nearly a year ago, but Senate Democrats delayed his confirmation vote this week after Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said they should investigate unsubstantiated claims of domestic violence against the sheriff. Gonzalez and his wife say the allegations are false.