An immigration detainee sits in a high-security unit in Orange, Calif. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite President Trump’s push for tougher immigration enforcement, U.S. agents are on pace to deport fewer people in the government’s 2017 fiscal year than during the same period last year, the latest statistics show.

Trump took office pledging to round up as many as 3 million drug dealers, gang members and other criminals he said were living in the United States illegally. But the most recent figures from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) indicate the government may be having a hard time finding enough eligible “bad hombres,” as the president described them, to quickly meet those targets. 

As of Sept. 9, three weeks before the end of the 2017 fiscal year, ICE had deported 211,068 immigrants, according to the most recent figures provided by the agency. ICE removed 240,255 people during the government’s 2016 fiscal year.

The lower totals are not for lack of effort. According to ICE, its agents have made 43 percent more arrests since Trump took office versus the same period last year. 

While ICE took into custody more immigrants with criminal records, the fastest-growing category of arrests since Trump’s inauguration is those facing no criminal charges. The agency arrested more than 28,000 “non-criminal immigration violators” between Jan. 22 and Sept. 2, according to the agency’s records, a nearly threefold increase over the same period in 2016.

The small city of Saratoga Springs in Upstate New York is known for its summer horse racing season. But with a series of recent ICE arrests, migrants who help make the season possible, are living in fear. (Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

“ICE has taken the gloves off, and they are going after whoever they want and for whatever reason,” said Ray Ybarra Maldonado, an immigration attorney in Phoenix. “It’s a free-for-all now.”

There appear to be several factors that explain why deportations have declined despite the increase in arrests, according to policy experts, immigration attorneys and current and former ICE officials.

The number of people attempting to sneak across the U.S. border with Mexico fell dramatically in the months following Trump’s inauguration, reducing the supply of easy-to-deport immigrants. And while the administration has directed ICE to ramp up enforcement, antipathy toward the president’s policies has supercharged the fundraising ability of advocacy groups and law firms that provide pro-bono help to immigrants fighting deportation.

The additional arrests and litigation appear to be putting a new burden on the U.S. federal immigration court system, which faces a backlog of more than 600,000 cases. It may take years before immigrants arrested under Trump can be deported after exhausting their appeals.

In just one example of new efforts to challenge the president’s immigration policies, the Southern Poverty Law Center says it has opened offices in four towns with large ICE detention centers in the past six months. Flush with donations and offers from volunteer lawyers eager to help, the group is providing free legal help to hundreds of detainees, said Dan Werner, director of the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative. 

“We’re only able to represent a small portion of the immigrants who need lawyers, but there has been a groundswell of support for immigrant rights across the country,” he said.

In a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted last week, 62 percent of Americans said they disapproved of Trump’s handling of immigration.

ICE removals reached a high of 410,000 in the government’s 2012 fiscal year, when critics of President Barack Obama labeled him “deporter in chief.” In the years that followed, ICE agents were instructed to prioritize immigrants with criminal records, and roughly two-thirds of the agency’s removals were immigrants picked up along the border, including many with existing deportation orders who were caught trying to sneak back in. 

But illegal crossings plunged in the first several months of the Trump administration, with apprehensions by U.S. border agents down by as much as two-thirds compared with the same period in 2016. Illegal crossings have ticked upward again but remain well below historic levels, and the perception of tougher enforcement appears to remain a deterrent to would-be migrants.

ICE officials say they will continue to prioritize criminal suspects, but their new marching orders make clear that anyone in the country illegally is subject to arrest. 

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said Trump “is keeping his promise to the American people to secure the border, deport illegal immigrants, and fix an immigration system that has long been broken.” 

Asked to comment on this year’s lower deportation numbers, Smith blamed “sanctuary” policies and advocacy groups for holding ICE back.  

“At every turn illegal immigration activists sue the administration and cooperating local law enforcement to stop increased enforcement efforts,” he said in a statement.

While the number of U.S. jurisdictions that have sought new partnerships with ICE has increased since Trump took office, others with sanctuary policies, such as Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, have become less cooperative, according to Randy Capps, research director at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington. 

ICE can make arrests of potential deportees with targeted operations on the street or in private homes, but they are relatively costly and time consuming because they require planning and multiple ICE personnel, Capps said. Picking up deportation-eligible immigrants at jails and prisons is much cheaper and far easier logistically. 

ICE needs those facilities to hold on to potential deportees after they’ve served their sentences or jail time and to give its agents enough time to make a pickup. “Without more officers or more cooperation, it’s unclear how much more they can significantly increase their arrest numbers,” Capps said.

Some attorneys and immigrant advocates say ICE has tried to boost its sagging deportation stats by going after the easiest targets — in particular immigrants who show up for regularly scheduled “check-ins” with ICE officers. Under the previous administration, many were allowed to stay for humanitarian reasons if they faithfully appeared for periodic meetings with ICE and didn’t commit crimes.

But this year, an unknown number have appeared for ICE check-ins only to be arrested or given an ultimatum to leave. “This is all about the low-hanging fruit,” said Charles Kuck, an Atlanta immigration attorney who teaches at Emory University. “It’s how you can spend the least amount of money to get higher deportation numbers.”

Kuck said 15 to 20 of his clients have been arrested in recent months this way. “These are people coming in just as ICE told them to, so they’re almost de facto not bad hombres,” he said. 

ICE officials say they are not targeting such people but merely upholding the law by enforcing deportation orders. The Obama administration is also to blame, others say, for giving many of those immigrants the unrealistic expectation that ICE would let them defer deportation indefinitely.

The arrests have left immigration attorneys painfully unsure how to advise their clients, said Royce Bernstein Murray, policy director at the American Immigration Council, an advocacy group. “It’s a lose-lose,” she said. “If they don’t show up for their check-in with ICE, they violate the terms of supervision and become a target for arrest. If they do show up, they could be taken into custody anyway.”

Many ICE agents praise Trump for giving them more latitude to do their jobs, granting more discretion over whom they can arrest and where. As a result, they have increasingly detained a category of people known as “collaterals.” 

Under the Obama administration, ICE agents seeking to arrest a suspect would not typically ask for the documents of relatives and other people living with the suspect. Now they have more discretion to do so, resulting in additional collateral arrests, including potential deportees with no criminal record.

Philip Miller, a top ICE official, said this week at a policy forum in Washington that the agency will conduct more street-level arrests in jurisdictions that do not cooperate at the jails. “Not very safe for my officers. Not the most efficient way to utilize our resources,” he said. “But in jurisdictions that don’t work with us, we’re left with no other choice.”