Despite Trump push, number of undocumented immigrants removed by ICE up only slightly

The nation's chief immigration enforcer blamed "sanctuary cities."

October 10, 2019, 6:51 PM

Despite President Donald Trump’s aggressive moves to crack down on illegal immigration and his threats to deport “millions,” ABC News has learned total removals over the past year mark only a slight increase from 2018 and remain lower than peak annual totals under President Barack Obama.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed about 260,000 unauthorized immigrants in the 2019 budget year, according to two ICE officials.

Police departments of “sanctuary cities” refusing to cooperate with ICE and the resource strain from the humanitarian crisis at the southern border have partly driven the dysfunction within the country's deportation force, as ICE acting director Matthew Albence explained in the White House briefing room Thursday.

PHOTO: Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Matt Albence speaks in the Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Oct. 10, 2019.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Matt Albence speaks in the Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Oct. 10, 2019.
Andrew Harnik/AP

"We've had to re-deploy our ICE resources to support the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection with those challenges at the border which has made us less safe,” Albence said.

Immigration authorities continue to turn around tens of thousands of asylum seekers at the southern border by limiting access to ports of entry and quickly returning migrants back to Mexico under new protocols critics say limit access to U.S. legal services. But Trump's vows to deport "millions" already living in the country haven't yet become a reality.

“Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States,” Trump tweeted in June. “They will be removed as fast as they come in.”

Last year, the Trump administration removed 256,085 unauthorized immigrants from the country. The agency has repeatedly attempted to convince local law enforcement to back its enforcement efforts. The number of unauthorized immigrants removed by ICE hit 409,849 in 2013 under Obama, according to government data.

Albence also pointed to a September ruling by a federal judge in California which blocks ICE from using certain information in criminal databases, including fingerprints, to make arrests.

Although the agency has eliminated Obama-era enforcement priorities that targeted dangerous criminals first, the vast majority of the unauthorized immigrants removed in the past year have criminal records, Albence said.

It’s the second time Albence has taken the podium in recent weeks, flanked by local sheriffs from across the country, and criticizing the local police departments he said aren’t cooperating with his agents.

“I don’t think there’s a middle ground for public safety,” Albence said.

The chief immigration enforcer said Thursday heightened rhetoric from Democratic politicians continued to cause problems for public safety. But ICE’s critics, and even some law enforcement professionals, place the blame on the White House.

“Our interior enforcement efforts have been less focused and less effective,” John Cohen, a former career official with the Homeland Security Department, said. “This administration has focused increasing on non-criminal aliens.”

Cohen’s assessment is reflected in recent data. About 15,000 fewer criminal aliens were arrested this year compared to last, as Albence said Thursday.

“Their approach and rhetoric has created a wedge between law enforcement agencies across the country,” Cohen said.

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