President Biden and his Department of Homeland Security team have issued new rules to rein in ICE officers, who were afforded wide latitude under the Trump administration to make arrests and were encouraged to boost deportations.
Biden has resisted calls from activists and some lawmakers to abolish ICE, and his top DHS officials say they will reform the agency and restore its reputation by focusing on criminals who pose public-safety or national security threats. In private, ICE officials say their work is being essentially abolished through restrictions on their ability to make arrests and deportations.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has concentrated its limited law enforcement resources on threats to national security, border security, and public safety,” the agency said in a statement Wednesday. “This has allowed ICE to focus on the quality of enforcement actions and how they further the security and safety of our communities rather than the simple quantity of arrests and removals.”
Since Biden changed ICE’s priorities and ordered a 100-day deportation moratorium, interior arrests by ICE officers have plunged more than half, records show. A federal judge blocked the 100-day moratorium in February, and the Republican governors of several states are suing the Biden administration to force a reversal of his ICE directives.
The latest federal data shows ICE has recorded about 37,000 deportations during the past seven months, putting the agency on pace for fewer than 55,000 deportations for the 2021 fiscal year. It would be the first time that figure has fallen below 100,000.
“This administration has de-emphasized the likelihood that people would get arrested if they aren’t a threat to public safety or recently crossed the border, so they are not going to have strong removal numbers,” said Ronald Vitiello, who was ICE’s acting director in 2018 and 2019.
“That’s part of a signal being sent — that immigration enforcement isn’t a priority for this team,” Vitiello said. “The odds of being arrested just for being in the country illegally were always extremely low, and now they’ve basically ruled it out by policy.”
ICE deportations peaked at more than 400,000 in 2013 and averaged about 240,000 during Trump’s first three years in office, far below his pledges to eject “millions” of immigrants from the United States.
There are an estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States without legal status, including 1.2 million who have been ordered to leave the country by a judge, according to ICE statistics.
Deportation figures fell sharply starting in March 2020 when the Trump administration implemented the public health order known as Title 42, allowing U.S. Customs and Border Protection to rapidly return most illegal crossers to Mexico. DHS officials say the policy is essential to prevent the spread of the coronavirus inside detention facilities, and Biden has kept the Title 42 order in place.
The U.S. government has used the order to “expel” roughly 700,000 border-crossers over the past 13 months, but the procedure is not officially recorded as a deportation, which ICE calls “removals.”
Interior arrests by ICE are considered a more reliable gauge of enforcement intensity by the agency. ICE officers have made about 2,500 arrests per month since Biden took office, down from about 6,000 during the final months of Trump’s presidency and an average of over 10,000 per month before the pandemic.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has directed ICE to prioritize security threats and recent border-crossers. Last month he barred ICE officers from making routine arrests at courthouses, saying the practice discourages immigrants from attending their court hearings.
“The expansion of civil immigration arrests at courthouses during the prior administration had a chilling effect on individuals’ willingness to come to court or work cooperatively with law enforcement,” Mayorkas said in a statement.
Under Trump, the number of immigrants held in ICE custody grew to more than 50,000 per day, but it has fallen since the pandemic to the lowest levels in decades, with about 15,000 current detainees. Advocates for immigrants have been pressing the administration to close ICE detention facilities and cancel contracts with the private companies that jail immigrants facing deportation.
The American Civil Liberties Union called on DHS this week to close 39 ICE facilities. “The number of detained people is currently lower than it’s been in two decades: President Biden has a unique moment to shrink the infrastructure that’s been used to abuse and traumatize immigrants for decades,” ACLU attorney Naureen Shah said in a statement. “It’s time to end our nation’s newest system of mass incarceration of Black and Brown people.”
Biden is facing significant pressure to increase enforcement, however, with polls showing a majority of Americans giving him poor ratings for his handling of the border influx. His critics blame a historic surge in crossings over the past three months on his rollback of Trump-era enforcement policies, including the measures to curb ICE enforcement.
U.S. agents took more than 172,000 migrants into custody along the Mexico border in March and detained a similar number in April, according to preliminary figures, the highest since 2001.
The influx includes soaring numbers of border-crossers traveling as part of family groups. Under Biden, ICE has converted its two largest family detention facilities into rapid processing hubs for parents with children. The facilities seek to process families within 72 hours for release into the U.S. interior, issuing a court appointment allowing parents to make humanitarian claims for asylum or other protections under U.S. law.
Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Ronald Vitiello was ICE’s acting director in 2017 and 2018. He was acting director in 2018 and 2019. The article has been corrected.