Days after Trump took office, he issued an executive order that made clear that anyone in the United States illegally could be deported and ended former president Barack Obama’s policy of frequently granting reprieves from deportation to undocumented immigrants with clean criminal records or U.S.-born children.
Acting ICE director Thomas Homan said the statistics released Wednesday show that agents still prioritize lawbreakers: 30,473 criminals were arrested from Jan. 22 to April 29, an 18 percent increase from the same period in 2016.
Meanwhile, arrests of immigrants with no criminal records more than doubled to nearly 11,000, the fastest-growing category by far.
“Will the number of noncriminal arrests and removals increase this year? Absolutely,” Homan said. “That’s enforcing the laws that are on the books.”
What is less clear is what is happening to the immigrants who are being taken into custody.
Overall, deportations have fallen about 12 percent this year, to about 56,315 people, which Homan attributed to a severe backlog in federal immigration courts. He also said it can take longer to deport criminals than those without criminal records, because those in the former category may have additional court proceedings. The Trump administration has called for additional immigration judges and detention space to speed deportations.
Homan did not say how many of the 41,318 people whose arrests were announced Wednesday have been deported, remain in custody or have been released.
Unlike criminal arrests, records of immigration arrests — which are considered civil violations — are not publicly accessible.
The secrecy allows immigration officials to pick and choose which examples of their work to highlight. On Wednesday, they said the immigrants arrested since Trump’s executive order include Estivan Rafael Marques Velasquez, an alleged MS-13 gang member from El Salvador captured in New York in February; Juan Antonio Melchor Molina, a fugitive wanted for a 2008 murder in Mexico who was arrested last month in Dallas; and William Magana-Contreras, another reputed MS-13 member arrested in Houston last month. Magana-Contreras is wanted for aggravated homicide in El Salvador, officials said.
Some advocates questioned whether ICE is truly prioritizing the most serious criminals.
Parastoo Zahedi, an immigration lawyer in Virginia, said ICE is actively trying to deport one of her clients to Italy because of a conviction for possession of a small amount of marijuana. He has lived in the United States nearly all his life.
“It’s not criminal aliens,” Zahedi said. “It’s anyone that they can catch.”
Ava Benach, a D.C. immigration lawyer, said ICE agents are “empowered, emboldened and . . . eager to enforce the law aggressively.”
Advocates also questioned the wisdom of arresting thousands more immigrants — especially those who pose no known public safety threat — when immigration courts are severely backlogged. But Homan said that is the agency’s job.
“When a federal judge makes a decision and issues [a deportation] order, that order needs to mean something,” he said. “If we don’t take action on those orders, then we’re just spinning our wheels, aren’t we?”
Obama also sharply increased deportations during parts of his tenure, expelling about 400,000 deportees a year during his first six years in office. At the same time, he lobbied Congress to create a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living here.
In his last two years in office, Obama curtailed deportations somewhat and emphasized that ICE should try to spare law-abiding residents and those with U.S.-born children.
Under Trump, many of those limits are gone — with the exception of a program that protected undocumented immigrants who came to America as children.
“Given the collapse in enforcement in the last few years of the Obama administration, it’s a long-overdue increase,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which has pushed for stricter adherence to immigration laws. “It’s one data point, obviously, but it’s welcome news.”
Houston, Los Angeles and other cities have pushed back against Trump’s crackdown, blaming it for sharp decreases in reports of sexual assaults and other crimes among Latinos, who officials say are increasingly afraid to go to the police.
But Homan said ICE is like any other law-enforcement agency. He expressed frustration with jurisdictions that refuse to hold immigrants in local jails and courthouses until deportation agents can take them into custody.
“The men and women of ICE are law-enforcement officers sworn to enforce the law,” he said. “And that’s what we’re going to do, and we’re not going to apologize for it.”