Originally Published in The Washington Post
Maria Sacchetti - December 23, 2020
ICE’s year-end report concludes a tumultuous era in immigration enforcement, and serves as a baseline for President-elect Joe Biden’s administration as it considers reversing many of Trump’s policies.
Henry Lucero, ICE’s executive associate director of enforcement and removal operations, said family deportations rose because of a “new process” ICE created with officials in northern Central America. In the past, U.S. immigration officials had to wait for a consular officer to interview immigrants and verify their citizenship before putting them on planes and sending them home. Now the nations exchange information electronically, officials said, and authorities in migrants’ home countries double-check their citizenship upon their return.
“That process allowed for quicker and faster removals and having families really not being in detention any longer than they needed to be,” Lucero said at a media briefing.
While deportations of family units rose, the United States deported fewer adult individuals and unaccompanied minors last fiscal year. In total, ICE deported 185,884 people in the 2020 fiscal year, a 30 percent drop from the previous year and the lowest tally of Trump’s term, according to the report. More than 4,000 unaccompanied minors were among them, down from more than 6,300 the year before.
Lucero attributed the decline in deportations to limited detention space during the pandemic and fewer referrals from the border. He said the past year has been unlike “any we have ever seen or could have ever imagined because of the pandemic.”
The ICE deportations are in addition to nearly 200,000 “expulsions” in the past fiscal year — an emergency power that Trump gave border officials to rapidly remove people from the United States, sometimes in a matter of hours, while bypassing typical immigration proceedings.
That tally includes many migrants who attempted to enter the United States more than once.
But Lucero emphasized that ICE’s priority remains public safety, and that most of the 62,700 people deported from the interior of the United States last year had criminal charges or convictions.
“ICE contributes tremendously to keeping our communities safe, and we want people to see that,” he said.
Trump had vowed to ratchet up immigration enforcement but ultimately fell short of his goals. The president won praise at the start of his term for declaring that any of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States could be deported, while his predecessor, President Barack Obama, had pressed ICE agents to limit their work to criminals and recent border crossers.
Obama ultimately deported more immigrants: Trump removed about 935,000 people during his four-year term, compared with nearly 1.6 million during Obama’s first term, according to figures from the Migration Policy Institute.
Deportations from the interior of the United States — primarily people who have been arrested for crimes — also remained lower than ICE officials had hoped. Officials faced fierce resistance from “sanctuary cities” that refused to turn over people they had arrested for state and local crimes, one of the main ways ICE takes immigrants into custody.
Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the institute, said the Trump administration lagged behind Obama in interior enforcement “even though they were extremely enthusiastic about it.”
Trump also was stymied by an influx of unaccompanied minors and families at the U.S.-Mexico border — more than half a million in 2019 alone — that swamped border facilities and slowed deportations.
More recently, the coronavirus has diminished the number of detainees in ICE custody because of requirements for social distancing. At their peak under Trump, the immigration jails held more than 50,000 people a day. Fewer than 16,000 are currently in custody, Lucero said.
Biden, who was vice president during the Obama years, has promised to start his term in January with a 100-day pause on deportations from the interior of the United States.
Biden has called the high number of deportations under the Obama administration a “big mistake” and promised this week a “much more humane policy,” including a bill that, if approved by a divided Congress, would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship.
Biden has also promised to revoke Trump’s policies blocking people from quickly seeking asylum at the southern border, but this week the president-elect warned that process could take months amid the pandemic.
Advocates for immigrants say the Trump administration has trampled immigrants’ rights by barring asylum seekers from crossing the southern border. They say families have fled hunger and violence in their homelands and are not getting a fair opportunity to apply to stay in this country.
With ICE holding fewer people because of the pandemic, many see a new opportunity to remake immigration policy and sharply reduce detention.
More than 8,100 detainees have contracted the coronavirus and eight have died after testing positive. Lucero said the agency is working to ensure that front-line workers and detainees will have access to the new vaccines. About 450 detainees are currently infected with the virus, according to ICE’s website.
Nick Miroff contributed to this report.