Michelle Hackman, Wall Street Journal, April 4, 2021
Federal immigration authorities have made sharply fewer arrests and deportations of immigrants in the country illegally since President Biden took office, as the new administration reorients enforcement within the U.S. to focus on those with a serious criminal record.
Mr. Biden made a 100-day deportation moratorium one of his key campaign promises, meant to demonstrate his commitment to overhauling U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency charged with immigrant arrests, detention and deportations.
A federal judge halted that deportation pause days after it was issued in January, but ICE statistics show that enforcement priorities the administration introduced have sharply reduced most of the agency’s activity anyway.
ICE’s arrests fell by about two-thirds in March compared with the monthly tallies toward the end of the Trump administration, when arrests had already slowed amid the continuing pandemic, the data show. Deportations fell by nearly 50%. And ICE’s population of immigrants in detention—which peaked above 56,000 in 2019—fell to 14,000 in March.
At the same time, migrant arrests at the U.S. Southern border have reached a 15-year high. The Border Patrol arrested more than 170,000 migrants crossing the Southern border illegally in March, according to a person familiar with the numbers, up from nearly 97,000 in February. Other migrants, meanwhile, are getting across the border without being caught. In recent days, border officials have estimated that nearly a thousand migrants have entered the country undetected, according to people familiar with the matter.
The majority of those apprehended at the border are being immediately returned to Mexico, while children are transferred to a network of child shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The Biden administration’s current ICE guidelines direct immigration officers to target people who recently crossed the border illegally and weren’t immediately turned back by the Border Patrol, along with others deemed threats to national security or public safety. Public-safety threats are defined as people who have committed aggravated felonies, a term used in immigration law that captures some of the most severe crimes, including murder, rape and human trafficking, but not some of the most frequent offenses for which immigrants are arrested, including driving under the influence.
Officers who want to arrest anyone outside of those categories must seek preapproval from senior ICE officials in writing, a standard that requires them to gather police reports and other documents in support of their case.
Internal figures seen by The Wall Street Journal show that in December, the final full month of the Trump administration, ICE arrested about 4,400 immigrants with criminal convictions, compared with about 1,900 in February, the first full month of the Biden administration—though many of the arrests in December were likely for misdemeanor convictions.
Soon after Mr. Biden took office, officials put off at least one nationwide operation, known as Operation Talon, that was planned in the final weeks of the Trump administration to target immigrants with sex offenses, according to current and former officials familiar with the operation. Many of the people targeted wouldn’t have fallen under the Biden administration’s arrest criteria because they only had misdemeanor convictions.
“The guidelines get us to a point where someone needs to be victimized, violently, before our immigration laws are enforced,” said Jon Feere, a senior adviser at ICE in the Trump administration.