US immigration officials have focused more of their enforcement efforts on people with criminal histories who are deemed “public safety threats,” leading to a drop in overall arrests even as the new priorities are criticized by parts of President Joe Biden’s left base and fuel pushback from the right.
Unlike the Trump administration, which treated every undocumented immigrant as a priority for arrest and removal, Biden wants to target certain types of undocumented immigrants, primarily those with past convictions for certain crimes. Conservative critics say officers have been hamstrung and effectively told not to do their jobs.
“ICE’s goal isn’t to try to rack up numbers. It is to protect public safety and protect national security,” a senior ICE official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told BuzzFeed News.
The official also said the agency takes “its national security and public safety missions very seriously but also is committed to upholding an immigration system that is just and humane.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a prominent Democrat, has called for more aggressive changes, including further limiting arrests.
New guidelines for officers issued in February seek to recast ICE after a tumultuous four years in which, according to polls, it was among the least liked government entities in the US. Under the Trump administration, ICE leaders planned massive worksite raids and community sweeps that yielded scores of arrests, which were intended to send a message that undocumented immigrants could be detained at any time. Some operations focused on families, and immigrant advocates condemned so-called collateral arrests of people who happened to be at the location of a targeted arrest or raid. Those encounters are ripe for racial profiling, advocates say.
ICE officials argue that arrest data from March and April that was obtained exclusively by BuzzFeed News show that the agency has been successful in reorienting its enforcement priorities. In that time, 55% of the immigrants arrested by ICE either fell into the public safety and national security categories listed in the guidelines or were approved by local officials for apprehension, according to the data. The arrests approved by local ICE officials included people with histories of domestic violence or child exploitation, according to a senior ICE official.
Agency officials also point to data that show arrests of those with past criminal convictions related to assault, sexual offenses, or weapons violations have gone up in the last two months when compared to the last few under Trump, although an exact comparison is difficult in some areas due to how different administrations track the numbers.
“If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. Here, by setting priorities, you get more effective law enforcement. What [Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas] has done is focus our scarce law enforcement resources on the most pressing threats,” the official said.
As the overall number of arrests and deportations have fallen precipitously, Biden officials have faced criticism from former DHS leaders who believe the agency’s priorities have not only created a “sanctuary” across the country for undocumented immigrants, but have also dramatically scaled back the work officers signed up to do. The agency arrested just over 3,000 noncitizens in April, about half the number of arrests when compared to the averages of the last three months of the Trump administration.
“It’s a combination of the enforcement restriction by this White House on top of sanctuary cities that are going to continue to release criminal aliens into our cities,” Mark Morgan, the former head of Customs and Border Protection, said in February after the new priorities came out. Legal challenges have since been filed by states like Arizona, which argue the priorities focus the agency’s mission too narrowly.
“Every law enforcement agency should be judged not by the quantity of their arrests but by the quality of the arrests,” the senior ICE official responded.
But some immigrant advocates believe the agency should scale back its reliance on the criminal justice system to target immigrants and stop detaining immigrants in private and county jails. On Monday, Ocasio-Cortez sent a letter to DHS officials outlining her concerns.
“It is time to end the carceral approach to immigration, which relies on these same flawed systems. Instead, we urge the Biden Administration to pursue humane and just immigration policies that aim to end mass incarceration, criminalization and deportation of immigrants,” the letter states.
The senior ICE official said the agency would continue to focus on people with serious convictions, such as domestic violence, but would consider other factors and make individual assessments of whether arrests were necessary.
But the official also pointed out that the data proved ICE officers were following the guidelines set forth by the current administration.
“The focus has shifted,” he said.
The Biden administration is expected to release a final set of guidelines for officers in the coming weeks. Since the beginning of the pandemic, ICE has been limiting the types of enforcement it does in the US, which led to a dramatic downturn in arrests even during the Trump administration. As the pandemic slowly recedes, the number of people arrested by the agency could begin to increase.
The changes in arrests are part of a wider effort to reform the agency. In recent weeks, ICE officials have set up a process for immigrants to appeal deportations and arrests via individuals at agency headquarters, sharply limited who could be arrested at courthouses across the US, and mandated that immigrants no longer be referred to as “illegal aliens” in official communications.