HAVING DECLARED that “the shackles [are] off” deportation agents, the Trump administration has made clear it intends to accelerate arrests and removals of undocumented immigrants. Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly says agents will focus enforcement on undocumented immigrants with criminal records, but numbers from the administration’s first weeks in office suggest a different, and concerning, pattern.
As The Post’s Maria Sacchetti reported, arrests of unauthorized immigrants without criminal convictions more than doubled through mid-March under the new administration, compared with the same span last year. Arrests of those with criminal records increased by a more modest 15 percent.
The statistics offer a snapshot of less than two months of enforcement activity, not a predictive trend. Nonetheless, the numbers are jarring: Some 5,400 noncriminal undocumented immigrants were arrested in seven weeks or so, and many of them were picked up not along the border but in cities such as Atlanta, Dallas, Philadelphia and St. Paul, Minn., where large numbers of such immigrants have been in the country for more than 15 years, and many have children and other relatives who are U.S. citizens. In the District, noncriminal arrests for that period spiked from 38 a year ago to 174 this year. And given the administration’s proposal to hire 10,000 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, plus 5,000 new Customs and Border Protection officers, it’s fair to wonder if the next four years will be marked by the sort of indiscriminate roundups that President Trump at times threatened in his campaign rhetoric.
Starting in late 2014, the Obama administration explicitly targeted illegal immigrants with serious criminal convictions for enforcement, leaving those with clean records relatively, though not entirely, safe from the threat of deportation. Before that, it is true that deportations did spike, leading some immigration advocates to refer to President Barack Obama as the “deporter in chief.” But the spike then was driven largely by immigrants picked up and deported along the southwestern border; many of those deportees had only recently entered the country.
Now, ICE agents, having heard the message about their “unshackling,” may be acting with a freer hand. Mr. Kelly asserts that policy has changed to target undocumented immigrants with even a single nonviolent criminal conviction (such as drunken driving), and he acknowledges that no unauthorized immigrants are immune from arrest — including those with no criminal record, whom the president has referred to as “the good ones” and “terrific people.”
Stepped-up enforcement will shatter families and communities. Evidence suggests it is already deterring Latino victims of sexual assaults and other offenses in cities such as Houston and Los Angeles from reporting the crimes to the authorities, for fear they will end up being deported.
Law enforcement involves priorities, as Mr. Kelly acknowledges; he is also right that it is up to Congress to reform a dysfunctional system. In overseeing enforcement for this administration, however, he will be judged by whether policy is measured, sensible and humane. Early signs are not encouraging.