ICE made 75% fewer priority arrests over the first seven weeks of the Biden administration than during the same period last year, according to data obtained by The Washington Times that shows even the highest-ranking cases involving national security or public safety have seen significant drops.
The drops come as the new administration says it wants to marshal limited resources at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to focus on bad actors instead of rank-and-file illegal immigrants.
It’s fulfilled that latter promise, but appears to be struggling to find the bad actors.
Non-priority arrests dropped more than 80%, from 17,810 to 3,306. Priority arrests fell less sharply, but still dropped by more than 30%, from 2,771 last year to 1,897 this year.
Among the priority categories of security and safety cases, arrests of migrants with sexual assault charges were down more than 20%, weapons-offense arrests slid nearly 30% and arrests of kidnappers were down nearly 40% compared to the same period a year ago. The data compared Jan. 20 to March 8 for both years.
“Almost one thousand more ‘worst of the worst’ criminal aliens were arrested under Trump’s priorities,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies. “What this tells me is that, paradoxically, it looks like the Biden policies are actually hampering ICE’s ability to arrest even the most serious criminals who are a priority.”
In a statement late Tuesday, ICE repeated its claim that the agency is better able to focus on key cases with its new priorities.
Paige Hughes, an ICE spokesperson, also said the coronavirus pandemic has hindered operations.
“Among many other effects, since March 2020 the pandemic has significantly reduced the number of noncitizens ICE has been able to arrest at-large and in custodial settings in the interior,” Ms. Hughes said.
Local prison and jail populations provide the bulk of ICE’s arrests, and as those jurisdictions have cut their numbers during the pandemic, it means fewer chances for officers to make arrests.
Yet data collected by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse art Syracuse University shows a major drop in ICE book-ins from January to February, which would not have been affected by COVID.
The slide in arrests is likely to please immigrant-rights activists, who have long argued Homeland Security is deporting too many people. But the fact that nearly two-thirds of arrests among the high-profile categories still fell outside the safety and national security priorities will irk some groups.
The trend of lower ICE arrest numbers has been reported, but the data obtained by The Times brings new levels of detail to what’s going on behind those broad numbers at least in relation to the two top priority categories of public safety or national security threats. The breakdowns did not cover ICE’s current third priority of recent border crossers, nor did it cover other cases which, while not in the three priorities, are still deemed important enough to make an arrest.
According to the data, ICE agents and officers made 269 arrests of migrants whose most serious charge was assault during the early weeks of the Biden administration and who were deemed safety or security threats. Last year the figure was 462.
For homicides, arrests fell from 127 to 105. Burglars dropped from 149 to 59. Sexual assault-based arrests dropped from 213 to 167. Drunken-driving arrests fell from 24 to 7.
Immigration-crimes arrests were cut by more than half, from 132 to 61.
The only categories to show increases were “general crimes,” which went from 24 to 30; arson, which went from five to six; and threats, which rose from six to eight. Of those eight threat cases in 2021, four were deemed national security cases and four were public safety priorities.
Thomas D. Homan, who served as a senior ICE official in the Obama administration and then as acting director under President Trump, said the agency’s work has been misunderstood.
He said 91% of ICE’s arrests in 2020, the final year under Mr. Trump, did have criminal rap sheets. Cutting the number of arrests means leaving criminals out in communities, he said.
Mr. Homan also disputed the Biden administration’s claim that it needed to change its priorities because of limited resources.
“That is a lie,” he said, pointing to ICE’s record for removals in 2012, when it ousted 409,000 people. This year, with the same resources, he said ICE is on track to deport just 65,000.
“There is no lack of resources. ICE officers and leadership have told me that they have nothing to do,” said Mr. Homan, who is now associated with the Immigration Reform Law Institute.
ICE’s arrests are among the most controversial parts of immigration policy.
While cases have always been prioritized, during the Obama years ICE issued an explicit list of what its priorities were, telling agents and officers to focus chiefly on those cases that involved serious felonies, recent border crossers and those who were defying deportation orders.
In practice, that meant most of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country were in little danger of being arrested or deported.
In the Trump administration, the limits were removed. Agents and officers still were told to focus on the most serious violators, but if during their duties they encountered someone in the country illegally, they were empowered to make an arrest.
Under President Biden, the priorities are back and even more limited than they were in the Obama years.
ICE is currently operating under a Feb. 18 memo by acting ICE Director Tae Johnson, approved by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, that lays out three automatic priority categories for arrests and deportations: recent border crossers, national security threats and public safety cases, as defined by criminal charges.
Officers can make arrests of those cases without extra approval.
Officers can ask for permission to make arrests in other cases, but must submit written requests. Given that most arrests are made at prisons and jails as someone is being released from state or local custody, the paperwork can often mean ICE doesn’t get there in time, officers said.
Mr. Mayorkas, during a virtual town hall meeting with ICE employees late last month, said he’s working on another version of the guidance.
“I know there may be disagreements about where those lines are drawn and we’re going to be talking about that in the coming weeks,” he said, according to notes of the meeting obtained by The Times.
Mr. Mayorkas said the guidelines won’t be “set in stone — discretion is an important part in law enforcement.” He also said he’s getting weekly reports right now on the arrests ICE is making, and from what he’s reading, the Johnson priorities seem clear cut.
“I am not seeing many cases that raise questions,” he said.
He also said he wants to get to a point where deportation officers don’t need field office directors’ approval before making non-automatic priority arrests, saying that would be “dysfunctional.”
An example of a priority arrest came late last week when ICE officers in Colorado arrested Luiz Guzman-Rincon, an illegal immigrant from Mexico with ties to the 18h Street gang and a felony conviction for attempted manslaughter, stemming from a gang beef where he fired shots that struck a 16-year-old bystander, paralyzing her.
ICE called Guzman a “clear threat to public safety.”
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at email@example.com.
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