U.S. non-border immigration arrests fell despite Trump push

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Non-border immigration arrests in the United States fell by 10 percent in the year to September from a year earlier, the latest U.S. data shows, a drop that the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said was partly due to the diversion of the agency’s resources to the border.

FILE PHOTO: Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) look on after executing search warrants and making some arrests at an agricultural processing facility in Canton, Mississippi, U.S. in this August 7, 2019 handout photo. Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Handout via REUTERS

The figures were included in an annual ICE enforcement report reviewed by Reuters prior to publication and released on Wednesday.

In an interview with Reuters on Monday, ICE acting Director Matthew Albence said efforts to arrest immigrants inside the United States were hampered by a surge of mostly Central American families and children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border earlier this year, which diverted the agency’s resources.

Albence said 350 of the agency’s more than 6,000 Enforcement and Removal Operations personnel were reassigned to deal with the border crisis at various times during the last year. Overall, ICE has more than 20,000 employees.

Albence said the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants meant an increased workload in detention centers and in the field.

“Simply put, there are only so many resources to go around,” he said. “We’ve had some places where, for months at a time, fugitive operations teams were shut down.”

Albence also attributed the lower arrest totals to a lack of cooperation from “sanctuary” jurisdictions that do not honor the agency’s requests to hold immigrants booked into local jails.

“It’s compounded by jurisdictions not cooperating with us,” he said.

President Donald Trump has made immigration enforcement a central focus of his presidency and reelection campaign. He tweeted in June that immigration authorities would begin to deport “millions of illegal aliens” without legal status.

U.S. immigration officers arrested approximately 143,000 immigrants in fiscal 2019, which ended Sept. 30, down from nearly 159,000 arrests a year earlier, according to the report.

Albence told reporters during a conference call Wednesday that personnel reassigned to the border during the surge were tasked with processing migrant releases into the United States, arranging transportation and reviewing immigration paperwork.

“Congress hasn’t seen fit to give us more officers to actually deal with the issues that happen here,” he said. “It’s a challenge.”

Under former President Barack Obama, ICE focused arrest efforts on immigrants with criminal convictions. In fiscal year 2016 - the last full year under Obama - 86% of those arrested by ICE had criminal convictions. Approximately 110,000 immigrants were arrested by ICE that year.

Trump issued an executive order shortly after taking office that moved away from the Obama-era prioritization of criminal cases.

Of the total ICE arrests last year, only 64% of those picked up had been convicted of crimes. Driving under the influence, traffic offenses, drug crimes and immigration violations made up more than half of all convictions.

During the interview on Monday, Albence also addressed the possibility that his agency soon might need to grapple with enforcement against immigrants brought to the country as children and offered deportation relief and work permits through the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The Supreme Court is expected to rule next year over Trump’s attempt to phase out the program.

Albence said DACA enrollees ordered removed by an immigration judge “certainly” would be subject to deportation.

“They’re here illegally,” he said. “DACA isn’t a status.”

Reporting by Ted Hesson; Editing by Mica Rosenberg, Lincoln Feast and Leslie Adler