As the Trump administration focused on the record-setting numbers of families and children flooding the southern border, Immigration and Customs Enforcement this year arrested significantly fewer criminal undocumented immigrants, the agency’s interim head said Thursday.
“There's going to be a double-digit drop in criminal alien arrests this year directly related to what's going on at the border and the fact that we had to put more people in detention than we had room for,” Acting ICE director Matthew Albence said in the White House briefing room.
“We've had to re-deploy a lot of our interior enforcement resources that would be taking criminal aliens off the street to deal with the onslaught of the surge that was occurring,” Albence said.
ICE did not provide data on this year’s arrests. In 2018, the agency made 7,449 criminal arrests compared to 5,790 criminal arrests in 2017.
Flanked by local law enforcement officials, Albence decried “sanctuary city” policies that he said obstruct federal law enforcement from making immigration arrests, saying: “Why do they want these criminals released back in the street instead of being removed from the country?”
The news of falling arrest numbers came in response to questions by ABC News about the Trump administration’s ability to forge partnerships with local jurisdictions which Albence said are needed to arrest undocumented immigrants who have been incarcerated in the United States.
The Trump administration has seen pushback from local law enforcement officers who worry the strong rhetoric out of the White House is making it less likely that undocumented immigrants will report crimes for fear of deportation.
When Trump said early this summer that ICE would start targeting “millions” of undocumented immigrants, the announcement rattled immigrant communities even though the enforcement operations that followed were relatively routine.
The announcement comes as the Trump administration continues to grapple with the aftershocks of its controversial zero-tolerance policy, which called for the prosecution of every adult who crossed the border illegally, even those traveling with their children. The result was some 2,600 kids separated from their parents in a matter of weeks.
Last month, President Donald Trump announced a new plan to try to deter migration to the U.S. He said he plans to detain families together by lifting a longstanding 20-day limit on children in detention. That plan faces court challenges.
Overall, ICE removals still lag significantly behind those carried out under President Barack Obama, whose administration also saw a flood of families and unaccompanied children arrive at the border in 2014.
Obama’s Department of Homeland Security issued a list of priorities for immigration enforcement with a focus on felons and violent criminals. The Trump administration removed those priorities. But Albence insisted Thursday that the results were essentially the same, saying “90 percent” of people removed from the country were dangerous criminals or repeat immigration offenders.