Reports of dramatically reduced immigration enforcement inside the United States have prompted cheers from rights advocates and derision from critics of the Biden administration who are already incensed over record migration to the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that arrests of undocumented immigrants inside the United States dropped significantly in fiscal 2021, which ended September 30. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data showed the total of 72,000 arrests to be the lowest number in more than a decade, according to the news outlet, and about “half the annual totals recorded” during the Trump administration.
By comparison, ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) officers made 104,000 administrative arrests during fiscal 2020 and an average of 148,000 annually from 2017 through 2019, according to the Post.
VOA asked ICE for confirmation and comments on the 2021 data, which have yet to be publicly released, but the agency did not reply.
The Washington-based National Immigration Forum hailed reduced ICE enforcement as “good progress” and “a sign of what happens when law enforcement focuses on public safety threats.
Republican Senator Bill Hagerty of Tennessee had a different take.
“By drastically reducing enforcement of immigration law within the U.S., despite record illegal immigration, the Biden Administration is elevating the interests of illegal aliens over the rights of Americans,” the senator tweeted.
Upon taking office in January, President Joe Biden, a Democrat, ordered a 100-day deportation freeze along with a request to review enforcement policies executed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, ICE and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Three days later, Texas’ Republican attorney general, Ken Paxton, sued to block the freeze. A federal judge temporarily paused Biden’s order, then indefinitely halted it in February.
Despite judicial intervention, interior arrests remained low for the remainder of the fiscal year, continuing a downward trajectory over much of the past decade, partly because of the pandemic but also the Biden administration’s push for a more "humane" approach to interior arrests.
The DHS recently announced new sensitive location enforcement guidance. Effective immediately, U.S. immigration agents are expected to avoid enforcement in places like rallies, religious ceremonies and places where children gather, among others.
ICE interior enforcement arrests topped out around 322,000 in 2011 during the former Obama administration, falling to about 110,000 in 2016 before rising to about 158,000 in 2018 under Trump.
In September, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced that immigration agents would primarily target national security or public safety threats as well as recent border crossers.
“Enforcement priorities for apprehension and removal remain focused on noncitizens who are a threat to our national security, public safety, and border security,” a DHS memo stated.
Mayorkas said the guidelines, scheduled to go into effect November 29, would “enable our department to most effectively accomplish our law enforcement mission … [and] help us exercise our prosecutorial discretion to achieve justice.”
The Biden administration has also pledged to halt workplace ICE raids and shift agents’ focus to employers who are hiring and exploiting undocumented workers.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden promised what he called a more humanitarian approach to U.S.-bound immigration. Under Trump, his Republican predecessor, no undocumented immigrants were exempted from immigration enforcement regardless of how long they had lived in the United States or whether they had clean criminal records.