Fake News of 'Out-of-Control' ICE Enforcement under Trump Driving Bad Biden Policies

ICE under Trump never approached the 400,000 removals it had resources to achieve

By Andrew R. Arthur on February 17, 2021

As I noted in a January 15 post, misperceptions (fueled by media and special interest group reporting) about ICE enforcement under former President Trump is warping President Biden's immigration policies and proposals. In a February 15 follow-up, I detailed how, as a result, new draconian restrictions on ICE enforcement by the Biden administration (some in the proposal stage) go beyond not only Trump's policies, but those of Biden's old boss, President Obama, as well. Here are the facts to counter that "fake news" about "out of control" immigration enforcement under Trump.

Before I begin, however, let me prove the fundamental point about descriptions of ICE enforcement under the last administration.

A July 12, 2019, post from Human Rights Watch on a planned operation to arrest "undocumented immigrant families in at least 10 major cities" under final orders of removal (as well as any other illegally present aliens ICE encountered) was captioned "ICE Raids on US Immigrant Families Risk Serious Abuses: Trump Administration Policies Fostering Cruelty, Terror".

Strong words, which were repeated in that post. Similarly, a May 2017 opinion piece from The Guardian (UK) began:

With arrests of non-violent undocumented immigrants exploding across the country, it's almost as if Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) agents are having an internal contest to see who can participate in the most cruel and inhumane arrest possible. The agency, emboldened by Trump's xenophobic rhetoric, is out of control — and Congress is doing little to stop them.

And, of course, then-Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) referred to ICE as a "fascist" organization in a 2018 Democratic debate. He is now "former Rep. Joe Crowley", because he lost the election to now-Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), or "AOC". AOC has called on ICE to be abolished, because of its enforcement efforts under the Trump administration.

Are those descriptions of ICE enforcement under Trump "fake news"? Let's look at the facts.

In that January 15 post, I explained that two key metrics demonstrate how stringent ICE enforcement has been: The agency's arrests of aliens in the United States ("interior arrests"); and its removals of aliens from within the United States (as opposed to at the border), known as "interior removals".

As President Obama's first ICE Director, John Morton, explained in a March 2011 memo "prioritizing" enforcement, the agency then had the resources to remove 400,000 aliens annually (its resources have only increased since then).

The removal number has been manipulated for more than a decade by various administrations who have added aliens arrested by CBP (primarily Border Patrol) to the total, so I will include — but separate out — ICE border removals. Even then, ICE never came close to reaching the 400,000 removals annually under Trump that Morton claimed it had the resources to achieve, as the Figure 1 shows:

Figure 1. ICE Removals FY 2008-FY 2020

Graph: ICE Removals FY 2008 to FY 2020

Sources: "ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Report Fiscal Year 2015"; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, "FY 2016 ICE Immigration Removals", U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, "Fiscal Year 2019 Enforcement and Removal Operations Report", U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, "Fiscal Year 2020 Enforcement and Removal Operations Report".

Even at their peak under the Trump administration in FY 2018, ICE performed only 93.3 percent as many interior removals as it did in FY 2014 (under Obama). In fact, ICE in FY 2018 removed just 42.6 percent as many aliens from the interior as it did in FY 2011, when Morton issued his memo.

Most of those FY 2018 interior removals were not families, or aliens removable simply on immigration grounds. In fact, 76 percent had criminal convictions, and 14.8 percent of the rest had pending criminal charges. That means a whopping 9.2 percent were removable on immigration grounds alone.

So much for removals, what about interior ICE arrests? You can see the results for yourself:

Figure 2. ICE Interior Removals FY 2008-2020

Graph: ICE Interior Removals FY 2008-2020

Sources: "ERO LESA Statistical Tracking Unit, FOIA Tasking 2017-ICFO-25770"; "U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Fiscal Year 2020 Enforcement and Removal Operations Report"; "U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Fiscal Year 2019 Enforcement and Removal Operations Report".

If that figure looks familiar, it is a slightly updated version of the one I included in a February 11 post, with the colors highlighted to show the changes over time.

At their height under Trump in FY 2017 (which started with the last three-plus months of the Obama administration), ICE interior arrests were just 78 percent of what they had been under Obama in FY 2014.

Again, those interior arrests in FY 2017 were, by and large, not families and failed asylum seekers: 89.2 percent had either criminal convictions or were facing criminal charges, and only 10.8 percent of those aliens arrested were removable on immigration grounds alone.

In fact, however, the percentage of aliens with criminal convictions ICE arrested in the interior actually increased slightly in FY 2017 compared to FY 2014 — 73.7 percent in FY 2017 vs. 73.3 percent in FY 2014, and was significantly higher than under Obama-Biden in FY 2010 (52.5 percent).

It was only after then-DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson imposed tighter restrictions on ICE enforcement in November 2014 that ICE interior removals and arrests dropped to a lower level under Obama than comparable numbers under Trump, as I explained in the February 15 post.

Even then, ICE interior arrests in FY 2020 (which were partially impacted by the pandemic) were just 86.5 percent of what they had been in FY 2015 (10 months of which were under the Johnson restrictions), and 94 percent of what they had been in FY 2016.

FY 2016 (again, under Obama) was the low-water mark for ICE interior arrests before the pandemic of FY 2020, but the total number of aliens arrested by ICE who were removable on immigration grounds alone in FY 2016 (15,373) was just slightly lower than comparable pre-pandemic numbers under Trump: 20,464 in FY 2018 and 19,971 in FY 2019.

In percentages, those immigration-only arrests in FY 2016 were 75 percent of what they were in FY 2018 and 77.5 percent in FY 2019. I will note that ICE arrests under Trump included aliens who were facing criminal charges, while ICE did not compile that statistic under Obama (some, but not all, of those Obama-era immigration-only arrests were aliens with criminal arrests as well).

But considering that the number of cases completed by the immigration courts increased 93 percent (or 133,456 additional completions) between FY 2016 and FY 2019, one would have expected a much larger increase in both the actual number and percentage of interior arrests on immigration-grounds alone between those two years than actually occurred.

Why? Because there would have been more non-criminal aliens under orders of removal for ICE to have arrested in FY 2019 than there were in FY 2016. If ICE doesn't arrest aliens who have been given due process and ordered removed, removal proceedings are meaningless, and illegal entries will skyrocket.

As explained previously, however, impressions that ICE enforcement under Trump was somehow out of control are Biden's justification for reining in the agency. Want proof?

On his campaign website, Biden stated: "Trump has waged an unrelenting assault on our values and our history as a nation of immigrants." The figures above just don't bear that out, though.

Biden also asserted that as president, he would "enforce our laws without targeting communities, violating due process, or tearing apart families", and "ensure our values are squarely at the center of our immigration and enforcement policies."

As my colleague Jessica Vaughan has explained, however — and contrary to these statements — under Biden's proposed enforcement guidelines, there would hardly be any ICE enforcement at all.

Harkening back to the operation that was the subject of the Human Rights Watch post above, Biden described it as "a moral failing and a national shame" for Trump to have "threaten[ed] massive raids that would break up families who have been in this country for years" and "target[ed] people at sensitive locations like hospitals and schools" (anecdotes about the latter appear in the The Guardian piece).

"Moral failing and national shame" are strong words for what, when the facts are considered, was little more than below-average ICE enforcement under Trump. Unfortunately, and respectfully, those conclusions are based on nothing but "fake news".