Mexico and Northern Triangle Have Highest Percentage of ICE Detainers

Is a Mexican national 70 times as likely to commit a crime as an alien from India? Probably not.

By David North on February 7, 2022

The Center for Immigration Studies has found previously obscure data on the comparative incidence of detainers filed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on state and local penal systems that may shed some light on the question of which nations produce relatively more criminal aliens than others.

I say “may” because there are a host of factors at play in the issuance of these detainers in addition to people’s criminal tendencies.

The raw data shows that Mexico and the nations of the Northern Triangle have both the largest numbers of detainers, as well as the highest proportion of them when compared to the total foreign-born population (in the United States) from those nations. India and the Philippines, among major sending nations, are at the other extreme. The total number of detainers issued for June 2006 to June 2020, by nation of origin, is shown below.

Mexico   1,753,929
Guatemala   154,048
Honduras   138,051
El Salvador   120,254
India   6,207
Philippines   5,709


ICE files a detainer with a prison or jail in a case in which it is interested in deporting the alien in question as she or he completes their penal sentence; sometimes this happens after an arrest but before a trial. (Federal prisoners are handled in a different program.) If the system works, the alien is taken out of the state system and placed in ICE custody without a need for an arrest or re-arrest on the part of ICE. The numbers shown above and below are 15 years’ worth of these detainers.

In rounded terms, there were about 45 million foreign-born in the United States in 2019; in the years 2006-2020, ICE issued 2.5 million detainers (sometimes several times per individual). For reasons we will discuss shortly, the absolute majority of these detainers were issued against people from Mexico, 69.08 percent of them, which might seem to imply that 69.08 percent of the crimes committed by aliens were done by Mexican nationals. (Lots of crimes were done by Mexican nationals, but the percentage is misleading.)

If one compares the number of detainers for Mexican aliens with the number of foreign-born from that country the ratio is 1 to 6.23; when one does the same with India, the ratio is 1 to 434.84. The ratio of the two ratios would seem to support the notion that Mexicans are 70 times as likely to commit crimes in the United States. This is simply not the case.

The following table shows the total detainers, by the first 20 nations-of-origin, filed by ICE, as compared to the total foreign-born populations related to those nations; the totals include both legal and illegal residents of the United States.

Percentages of ICE Alien Detainers and Total
Foreign-Born Population by Leading Nations
of Origin, 2019

Nation Total
Pct. Total ICE
Pct. Ratio
Column 5
to Column 3
Mexico 10,931,900 24.30% 1,753,929 69.08% 2.84
Guatemala 1,111,500 2.50% 154,048 6.07% 2.45
Honduras 745,800 1.70% 138,051 5.44% 3.28
El Salvador 1,412,100 3.10% 120,254 4.74% 1.51
Cuba 1,360,000 3.00% 36,870 1.45% 0.48
Dom. Republic 1,169,400 2.60% 36,507 1.44% 0.55
Jamaica 772,200 1.70% 23,555 0.93% 0.54
Colombia 808,100 1.80% 18,507 0.73% 0.41
Vietnam 1,383,800 3.10% 15,118 0.60% 0.19
Ecuador 431,200 1.00% 13,809 0.54% 0.57
Nicaragua 257,300 0.60% 10,567 0.42% 0.73
Brazil 502,100 1.10% 10,343 0.41% 0.36
Haiti 701,700 1.60% 9,501 0.37% 0.24
Peru 446,100 1.00% 7,936 0.31% 0.31
Laos 176,900 0.40% 7,661 0.30% 0.77
China 2,250,200 5.00% 7,310 0.29% 0.06
Canada 797,200 1.80% 6,520 0.26% 0.14
India 2,688,075 6.00% 6,207 0.24% 0.04
Philippines 2,045,248 4.60% 5,709 0.22% 0.05
Nigeria 392,811 0.90% 5,169 0.20% 0.23
Subtotal 30,383,634 67.60% 2,387,571 94.00% 1.39
Rest of World 14,549,165 32.40% 151,265 5.96% 0.18
Grand total 44,932,799 100% 2,538,836 5.64% 0.57

Sources: Column 2: “Countries of Birth for U.S. Immigrants, 1960-Present”,
Migration Policy Institute; Column 4: “Immigration and Customs Enforcement
, Transactional Record Access Clearinghouse, Syracuse University.

While the table must relate to a certain extent to the criminal proclivities of various populations it should be noted that the filing of ICE detainers is also influenced by four sets of other variables:

  • The screening or lack of it of different groups of incoming foreign-born;
  • Social variables; crimes are more likely to be committed by poverty-class migrants than middle-class ones;
  • The workings of the criminal justice system, which despite our best efforts, tend to treat Hispanics and Blacks more harshly than others; and
  • The differential screening of outgoing aliens, the deportees.

Let’s deal with those four sets of factors in turn.

Screenings. Perhaps the most important of these variables is the question: How well-screened are the flows from different parts of the world. Most aliens coming to the United States from places other than Mexico or the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) go through as many as three screenings: often there is a petition to be judged by our government here, then there is a visa interview overseas, and finally, there is the brief encounter at the port of entry. In some cases, there is another vetting by a university’s admissions process or an employer’s hiring system, for example. Many aliens with criminal records must be detected somewhere along the way, ensuring that they are not among the arrivals.

On the other hand, people who enter without inspection (EWIs in Border Patrol lingo) have had no screening at all, and many aliens from Mexico and the Northern Triangle fall into that category.

Social Variables. The economic class level of the arriving migrants must have some bearing on the number of crimes committed. The arrivals from the nations south of us are predominantly working- (if not poverty-) class members; those from overseas are more likely to be middle-class.

The Workings of the Criminal Justice System. Not all crimes are noticed by the authorities, not all noticed crimes are prosecuted, and not all prosecutions lead to prison or jail terms. To some unknown extent, Mexican nationals and people from the Northern Triangle enmeshed with the criminal justice systems may be treated less well than those from Europe or Asia; if this occurs it would enhance the number of detainers issued for people from those four nations.

There may well be an additional factor along these lines; perhaps a migrant in trouble from India is more likely to have a lawyer than one from Mexico, for example.

Outward-Bound Variables. In addition, there is the important question of the home nations’ willingness to accept our deportees. Why should ICE go to the trouble of filing a detainer if the criminal’s homeland will not accept her or him? Why should ICE move forward when it knows that the alien lacks a passport and that his homeland will refuse to accept his return without a passport, which it will not issue? Laos, for instance, has a below-average detainer rate because of its policies in this field, as my colleague Dan Cadman reported last year.

The four nations to the south of us have not been reported to be recalcitrant on this point.

These are some of the reasons why there is not an apples-to-apples relation between crime rates and detainer rates, and why the number of detainers varies so much among nations of origin.

What is obvious, on the other hand, is that 85 percent of the detainers were filed against people from Mexico and the Northern Triangle when only 31 percent of our foreign-born are from those nations.

A much more determined enforcement policy at our southern border is obviously needed; one of the useful byproducts would be fewer people in our states’ prison systems, and fewer citizen and green card victims of crimes committed by aliens.

Note. The prominence of Mexico in these kinds of ratings, both in terms of absolute numbers and ratios of bad behavior vs. foreign-born percentages, was shown in two previous postings, both dealing with much smaller populations. One dealt with Oregon’s state prisoners, with 76 percent of the ICE detainers assigned to Mexican nationals.

Another showed that while Jamaica had the largest proportion of self-petitioning spouses to the foreign-born, generally, Mexico came in second on that score while producing by far the most such questionable immigrants.

The author is grateful to CIS intern Adam Morys for his assistance.