Deportations are down. In the 2017 fiscal year, which ended in September, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 226,119 people—14,000 fewer than the previous year. Barack Obama broke records by deporting more than 3 million people during his eight years in office. But no one should confuse a drop in deportations under Donald Trump with leniency.
There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of deportation: those which kick people out of the country quickly for getting caught crossing the US-Mexican border, and those which round up people who are already living in the United States—the “interior.” One big reason for the decrease in deportations is that fewer people are crossing into the country from Mexico. That pool of easy stat-boosters had already been drying up under Obama, and it continues to decline—though in its end-of-year report, ICE claimed that the trend could reflect “an increased deterrent effect” from the agency’s “stronger interior enforcement efforts.”
If one looks only at what are called “interior removals,” Trump has deported more people than Obama did in his final two years. In fact, in his first eight months in office, Trump deported 61,094 people from the interior, 37 percent more than Obama did in the same period in 2016.
ICE arrests are also up under Trump. Between his inauguration and September 30, ICE arrested 42 percent more people for immigration violations than it did over the same period in the previous year. Immigration-court backlogs are key to understanding why Trump’s deportation numbers aren’t even higher: If a person has lived in the country for more than two years and has not been previously subject to a deportation order, they’re entitled to a hearing before an immigration judge. Processing those cases takes time.
As it is, Trump has authorized his agents to do things that other administrations declined to do. Obama said that he was focused on removing “felons, not families.” These days, anyone who’s deportable—from restaurant-owning, decades-long residents to DACA-approved Dreamers—is a priority. ICE is now willing to arrest people with no criminal record, people who are guilty only of immigration violations. Even ICE’s gang-enforcement operations—designed, supposedly, to capture the most hardened criminals—have netted a disturbing number of people with no criminal record. It’s an unleashing that, to immigrants, feels like a kind of terrorism.
To make matters worse, ICE agents stalk places that were once no-go areas for apprehending immigrants: churches, courthouses, even school drop-off sites. In November, dozens of public defenders gathered for an impromptu protest outside a Brooklyn courthouse just after ICE a gents arrested a man who had shown up at court. That arrest was one of approximately 40 such incidents in 2017 in New York City alone—a 900 percent increase compared with last year, according to the Immigrant Defense Project. Lawyers and judges have reported similar activity in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Colorado, New Jersey, Oregon, Texas, Washington, and the rest of New York State. Denver City Attorney Kristin Bronson said that she’s given up on four domestic-violence cases since Trump’s election, because the victims were too afraid that ICE would be lurking to appear in court.
The Trump administration has also pressured local police forces to do immigration-enforcement work. In March, ICE began publishing a list of jurisdictions that declined to honor its detainer requests to hold immigrants in custody for the federal government. The list, intended to shame localities, has been suspended, but the spirit of it remains. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been engaged in legal battles with multiple municipalities, from San Francisco to Chicago, over the administration’s threats to defund so-called sanctuary cities.
In the spring of 2017, Sessions also issued guidelines to all federal prosecutors, directing them to bring felony criminal charges whenever possible in immigration cases. Those felony charges come with the possibility of prison time (a boon to private-prison companies, surely) and pave the way for easier deportations, as people with felony convictions have fewer rights in immigration court.
Trump has also invited the public to get involved in the process of nabbing immigrants. This year, the administration set up a hotline called VOICE (Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement), supposedly to provide services to the victims of crimes perpetrated by “removable aliens.” But an investigative report by Splinter found that the hotline was being used by people to settle family scores—one caller reported his stepson, another his mother- and sister-in-law, a third his ex-wife, and a fourth her granddaughter’s boyfriend—as well as to report suspected undocumented workers at various businesses and, in one case, people using EBT cards.
The Trump administration has given no indication that it plans to slow down in these efforts. As of May 2016, there were more than 900,000 people with final deportation orders living in the United States. And those people have no right to see a judge; court backlogs will not delay their removal. As soon as ICE can get its hands on them and make the travel arrangements, they will be deported.
There are only so many ICE agents, and only so many immigration judges, and only so many detention beds. It’s not quite clear what the upper limit on deportations might be. But the total number of deportations is clearly not the most important metric for gauging the harshness of a president’s immigration policies.