Arrests of immigrants who were living in the U.S. illegally plummeted over the last year as sanctuary cities shielded more people from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the agency pulled officers from the streets and sent them to the border, officials said Wednesday as they revealed their 2019 statistics.
Acting ICE Director Matthew T. Albence said 13,000 fewer people were arrested last fiscal year compared to the year before, as part of an overall drop of 10% of arrests of all immigrants in the interior.
“What that means is there’s 13,000 more criminals that we could have gotten our hands on, could’ve gotten off the street, that are still out there and able to reoffend,” he said.
Making matters worse, the officers who were pulled from the interior of the country and sent to the border were doing little other than slapping ankle bracelets on migrants and setting them free, as part of catch-and-release.
“Frankly, they were there processing releases,” Mr. Albence said.
He said sanctuary cities, which shield migrants from detection or from being turned over to ICE, also took a toll, making the agency have to expend far more energy to apprehend and deport target immigrants out in the community.
ICE’s deportations were up slightly in fiscal 2019, mainly because of the border surge. The agency ousted 267,258 people — still well below the heights of the Obama years, which set a one-year record of nearly 410,000 in 2012.
The border surge not only siphoned ICE officers away from their usual duties, but it also spurred a massive growth in the number of people ICE is supposed to be tracking in the U.S. as they go through their deportation cases.
The “non-detained docket,” as the list is known, now stands at nearly 3.3 million people. That’s up nearly 600,000 people in one year.
ICE says 595,430 fugitives are now ignoring deportation orders, up about 55,000 people since 2017.
The agency also set records in fiscal 2019 for detention. On average, 51,000 migrants were in detention per day. At its peak, ICE had more than 56,000 migrants in detention.
Those who are detained usually can have their cases heard in a matter of weeks and can be deported at the end of it. But those who are caught and released are tougher. Their court dates are often years in the future, and many migrants ignore their court dates altogether.
Nearly all the families caught during the height of the border surge this year were quickly released into the U.S. Mr. Albence said 85% of them skip out on their immigration cases and are ordered deported in absentia.
He said ICE is making some headway in tracking them down. In 2018, just 2,711 family members were deported. That more than doubled to 5,702 in 2019, he said.
Still, it’s a minuscule fraction of the 470,000 family members nabbed by the Border Patrol over the course of the year.
Mr. Albence pleaded for help from Congress.
He said that while Capitol Hill has increased funding for the number of immigration judges, it has refused to fund the ICE lawyers who argue the cases. Without more lawyers, he said the system can’t process more people.
He also warned Congress about its funding priorities.
Both Republicans and Democrats have touted “alternatives to detention,” such as ankle bracelets or check-in programs.
Mr. Albence, though, said those programs aren’t cost effective. He said ICE spent $200 million for alternatives last year, resulting in about 3,000 deportations.
“If that money was actually used in detention I could remove about 10 times that,” he said.
He also chided anti-ICE jurisdictions such as California, where officials are trying to shut down the agency’s ability to contract with local detention facilities.
He said the result is not that ICE stops detaining people, but rather that the people get shipped elsewhere.
“The next thing we know, we’re getting complaints from their families and their attorneys that they cannot have access to their family members that were arrested. Well, I mean, go ask the governor of California, of these county boards of supervisors,” he said.
He said 72% of those ICE detainees are mandatory detention cases under the laws set by Congress, and the others are usually cases in which ICE can’t “in good conscience” release the migrants because of safety concerns.