Donald Trump appears to be delivering on one core promise, even as many other aspects of his agenda have languished: He has made life for undocumented immigrants much, much scarier.
New data obtained by the Washington Post’s Maria Sacchetti show that during the first several weeks of the Trump administration (through March 13), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested 21,362 immigrants — including 5,441 with no criminal record.
That’s a huge increase from the last two years of the Obama administration, when noncriminal immigrants living within the US had little reason to fear deportation. It’s also much more similar to statistics from the first six years of the Obama administration — the most aggressive period in immigration enforcement in the modern era.
The Trump administration’s early record is comparable to 2014, when slightly more immigrants were arrested and an equal share (25%) were noncriminals. But President Obama deliberately acted to change that pattern at the end of his term, when he used executive action to curb enforcement — leading to a lull in 2015 and 2016 that provided temporary respite for immigrants who’d quietly been living in the US without papers for years.
In other words, Trump appears to have restored, immediately upon taking office, an immigration policy that was abandoned as inhumane.
The Obama administration worried that aggressive immigration enforcement would ultimately hurt long-resident immigrant families — and ultimately curbed it for this reason — the Trump administration appears to see this as an acceptable cost, if not downright desirable. He’s signaled to ICE agents that they have a lot of latitude when it comes to tracking down undocumented immigrants, and they’ve taken the message to heart.
The impact of Trump’s arrest spike goes beyond the number of immigrants who were actually taken into ICE custody during his first several weeks. The statistics confirm something millions of immigrants were already worried about: that once again, deportation is a constant threat.
The Obama administration spent years trying to rein ICE in. Trump immediately let them loose.
The way President Trump and his administration (not to mention most conservatives and Republicans) talk about it, the Obama administration didn’t bother to do anything to enforce immigration law. But that’s incorrect. The Obama administration, in its first term, represented the high-water mark of immigration enforcement in the modern era — deporting 400,000 immigrants each year from 2009 to 2012.
Often, Obama and his officials didn’t admit this is what they were doing — they emphasized that they were deporting “criminal aliens,” and stressed the need for Congress to provide legal status and citizenship to the rest of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US. But the administration never quite lined up its policy with its rhetoric — partly because ICE field agents didn’t want to simply write off whole swaths of the unauthorized immigrant population.
The Obama administration made several attempts to rein in ICE agents with memos directing them whom to “prioritize” for deportation. The first few didn’t succeed in curbing arrests. But in November 2014, as part of a wave of executive actions on immigration, the Obama administration issued a memo delineating very specific priorities for deportation — and instructing ICE that everyone not included in these priorities shouldn’t be targeted for arrest. Furthermore, the administration changed the way that local law enforcement agencies notified ICE when they had an immigrant in custody, making it easier for local police to choose not to help ICE arrest the immigrant after her release from jail. (While a couple of the November 2014 executive actions were held up in court, these were not.)
The results can be seen in the graph above. For the last two years of the Obama administration, arrests and deportations of immigrants living in the US dropped precipitously. For the first time in a decade, when immigration enforcement really started ramping up, unauthorized immigrants had good reason to believe they wouldn’t be arrested by ICE for going about their daily lives.
Donald Trump campaigned on undoing this policy — his promise to take the “shackles” off ICE agents was a pledge to rescind the policies that told them whom they should and shouldn’t deport.
And while there are plenty of promises Trump hasn’t been able to keep in his first months in office, the statistics obtained by the Post — as well as anecdotal evidence from around the country — indicate that his administration is successfully rolling back the clock to 2014 when it comes to ICE arrests.
This is a measure of Trump’s policy of fear among immigrant communities
What the arrest rebound illustrates is how active ICE is in scooping up unauthorized immigrants. Many of these immigrants had probably been flagged for ICE agents when they were checked into local jails — even those who didn’t have existing criminal records — and were then arrested upon their release, or when ICE agents tracked them down after they returned home. Others were likely arrested in their homes or while driving to work as part of coordinated, high-profile raids — either because ICE had flagged them for deportation or because they happened to be in the same room as someone who was. Yet others were arrested when they showed up to a local ICE office for a regular check-in, after ICE declined to deport them under the Obama administration.
In some regions of the country, ICE is even more active than it was in 2014 — Pennsylvania and Delaware have seen arrests spike 71 percent from 2014 levels. In others, it’s simply returned to the status quo; in much of the country, ICE is still arresting fewer immigrants than it was three years ago.
Across the board — in 23 out of 24 regional ICE offices — agents are a lot more active than they were a year ago, and they’re arresting more immigrants without criminal records.
Of course, ICE isn’t being wholly indiscriminate in its arrests under Trump. The majority of immigrants arrested have at least some form of criminal conviction (though it’s not clear from the stats obtained by the Post how many of these are for minor crimes or for crimes, like driving without a license, that are inherent to living in the US without papers). And many of the immigrants without criminal convictions could have been arrested because they have already been ordered deported from the US — a category of immigrants that was also considered a deportation priority under the Obama administration, until November 2014.
And, importantly, not every immigrant arrested will necessarily be deported. Deportations during the first three months of 2017 are actually slightly down from 2016 levels — which means they’re way below 2014 levels. That’s because it takes a long time to deport an immigrant, especially one who’s eligible to plead her case in immigration court (which is so backlogged that the average case is now measured in years).
The numbers merely confirm what immigrants around the country have been reporting since shortly after Trump arrived in office. ICE is more visible, and more feared, than it was over the past two years. Immigrants are reacclimating themselves to living in fear of deportation.
The Trump administration may simply have returned to the pre-2014 status quo — or it might be gradually ramping up an immigration policy that will turn out to be even more aggressive, after it scoops up the “low-hanging fruit” of immigrants known to ICE who haven’t been deported yet. But either way, it’s looking like the respite for unauthorized immigrants in the US was merely a blip in a decade-long cycle of aggression and fear.