In late August 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump went to Phoenix to give a speech outlining his planned approach to immigration should he win the presidency.
The focus of the speech, in keeping with his campaign’s overall theme, was crime and danger. After spending more than a year broadly connecting migration from Mexico to criminal activity, Trump pledged to enact a number of policies that would quickly oust criminal aliens from the country.
“Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation,” he said. “That is what it means to have laws and to have a country. Otherwise we don’t have a country.” However: “Our enforcement priorities will include removing criminals, gang members, security threats, visa overstays, public charges.”
“Within ICE” — Immigration and Customs Enforcement — “I am going to create a new special deportation task force focused on identifying and quickly removing the most dangerous criminal illegal immigrants in America,” he promised at another point. (He then suggested that perhaps his opponent, Hillary Clinton, should be deported for alleged criminal activity.)
Data published by Syracuse University’s TRAC research center suggests that this is not what happened: It is simply not the case that the administration has prioritized removing criminal immigrants.
Last month, TRAC released data looking at the criminal records of those in ICE custody. At the end of September 2016 — about a month after Trump spoke — there were about 39,000 people in ICE custody, about 17,000 of whom had at least one criminal conviction. Some 7,400 of that group had a Level 1 conviction, indicating that they had been convicted of a serious crime.
By the end of last year, the number of people in detention had increased by nearly 10,000 — but the number who had a Level 1 conviction actually declined. The number of people in custody who had no conviction at all made up most of the increase. By the end of last year, that group made up 63 percent of the total, up from 55 percent at the end of September 2016.
Other research from TRAC published Friday looked at the frequency with which the Department of Homeland Security cited criminal activity in a request to have someone removed from the country. In 2009, 16 percent of requests for removal made in immigration courts included a citation of criminal activity.
This year, even as the number of removal requests has surged, the number citing criminal activity has plunged. Fewer than 3 percent of requests this fiscal year (October to September) cite criminal activity.
One reason for Trump’s campaign trail mentions of focusing on criminals may be that only a small portion of Americans think that undocumented immigrants in the country who haven’t committed any crimes should be deported.
Polling from Quinnipiac University released in February 2018 found that only 25 percent of respondents believed that all immigrants without documentation should be deported. Nearly half thought that only those who had committed serious crimes should be forced to leave the country.
At times, Trump has embraced a more expansive deportation plan. In June, he tweeted that ICE would begin an effort to deport “millions” of immigrants living in the country illegally.
Those raids were postponed because of concerns from government officials. It’s clear, though, that the administration’s removal efforts are prioritized in a way that’s much closer to “get everyone out” than “removing criminals.”