Interior Enforcement Slumps Due to Border Crisis, Lack of Resources, Sanctuaries, and Systemic Dysfunction

By Jessica M. Vaughan on December 14, 2019

Earlier this week ICE released its 2019 report on enforcement activity. While overall removals increased due to a record number of illegal arrivals at the southwest border, removals from the interior declined by 10 percent. Meanwhile, ICE's caseload grew by 24 percent, with more than 630,000 cases added to its docket, which has grown to a record high of more than three million cases. It would be reasonable to conclude from these figures that interior immigration enforcement has been crippled to the point where transformative reforms and major infusions of funding are needed to ensure public safety, national security, and the integrity of our legal immigration programs. (My colleague Andrew Arthur has also written about the report.)

Here are some of the key disclosures in the report:

Interior Enforcement Declined

  • In 2019, ICE removed 267,258 aliens, just 11,000 more than last year. In contrast, in 2012, under the peak of enforcement under the Obama administration, ICE removed about 410,000 aliens. Then, as now, about two-thirds of the removals were border cases.
  • Interior removals numbered 85,958, down from 95,360 in 2018, a drop of 10 percent.
  • 350 ICE officers (out of about 5,000 total) were reassigned from interior enforcement to border enforcement duties during the year, which helps explain some of the decline in ICE activity.

ICE Targets Primarily Criminals

  • ICE's interior caseload is primarily criminal aliens. 86 percent of ICE arrests were aliens convicted or charged with crimes, and 91 percent of the removals were criminals (ICE often holds off on deportation until the alien is convicted and serves time).
  • The report includes an enumeration of the crimes committed by the aliens arrested by ICE, including 1,923 charged or convicted of homicide, 5,061 charged or convicted of sexual assault, 10,278 charged or convicted of weapons offenses, and 67,730 charged or convicted of serious drug crimes.
  • The criminal aliens ICE arrested had an average of four criminal arrests or convictions per alien.
  • More than 8,000 fewer criminals were removed from the country in 2019 than in 2018, due to ICE's decreased capacity resulting from the border crisis and increasing interference from sanctuary jurisdictions.
  • There were 5,497 gang members and 58 terrorists among those removed by ICE last year. The report includes several interesting case examples, including a Salvadoran 18th Street gang member who entered undetected and a Tunisian visa overstayer who married a U.S. citizen to get a green card and later broadcast his enthusiasm for ISIS and terrorism on social media.
  • For more analysis of ICE's recent caseload, see this report I prepared for a project of the California committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Huge Number of Family and Child Border Cases Have Overwhelmed ICE's Docket

  • Over the year, ICE released about 200,000 family unit members who had been taken into custody at the border. In addition, CBP released tens of thousands more who were never turned over to ICE. Only about 38,000 aliens were booked into ICE family holding centers over the year, and most of those were eventually released also.
  • ICE reports that there are now about 3.27 million cases on its non-detained docket, the highest number ever, and 24 percent more than last year. The number on the detained docket was not reported, and likely numbers in the tens of thousands. This includes those who have completed their proceedings and are still here, or who are currently in proceedings, including awaiting a hearing or appealing a decision. ICE did not report the number who already have been ordered removed, but according to previous reports, it surpasses one million.
  • I asked ICE how many released family units were on the docket and was told that they do not know.
  • ICE removed many more aliens who arrived as a family unit or unaccompanied minors (5,702 and 6,351, respectively), but these numbers are a drop in the bucket of hundreds of thousands who have arrived in recent years.
  • At the press conference, acting Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Matthew Albence said that ICE had opened more than 1,000 prosecutions of fake family units who arrived at the border.

No Shows Are A Big Problem

  • The number of fugitives on ICE's docket grew to 595,430, from 565,892 last year.
  • Congress has increased funding for so-called "alternatives to detention" (ATD), which provide for the alien's release while in proceedings, sometimes under a form of light supervision, such as an electronic bracelet or call-in program. Currently there are 96,000 aliens released on ATD. At the press conference announcing the report, Albence said ATD is ineffective, too unworkable to expand, and a waste of taxpayer money. He said that ICE could have removed 10 times more aliens than the number removed from the ATD program if they had been allowed to use the money for traditional removal processes.

The decline in enforcement should concern lawmakers and the public. ICE attributes the decline to a combination of factors: the border crisis and required diversion of ICE resources to deal with it; the exploitation of loopholes in immigration law and judicial rulings leading to the release of hundreds of thousands of families and minors into communities across the country; the proliferation of sanctuary policies; and especially the failure of Congress to provide adequate funding and discretion to ICE to deal with the burgeoning illegal population.

The Trump administration has made good progress with policy changes and bilateral agreements to reduce the number of illegal arrivals. They have pushed for changes to the law to close the loopholes that create problems. They are pushing back on sanctuary policies and creating workarounds.

More can be done. For example, the administration should create more detention capacity for CBP and Border Patrol use to enable those agencies to detain and process more of their own caseload, so that ICE does not have to choose between detaining recent illegal arrivals and convicted criminals in the interior.

There is no doubt that deportations can and must increase, but it's also true that the scale of the illegal immigration problem is too large to solve with deportations as the sole strategy. Considering the huge number of recent arrivals in proceedings, the fact that very few will ultimately be found qualified to stay (about 10 percent according to DOJ), and the very low rates of compliance with the removals orders issued by judges, rather than expecting ICE to shoulder all the work, we need to implement programs that will lead illegal immigrants to go home on their own. That means addressing illegal employment through E-Verify and ID theft reduction, penalizing and dismantling sanctuary policies, and avoiding amnesties until meaningful enforcement is restored.