Since the Bipartisan Policy Center’s last look at interior immigration enforcement data in 2014, President Trump’s calls for a wall spanning the U.S-Mexico border and stricter enforcement actions have heightened the debate around the enforcement of the country’s immigration laws. Despite the intensity surrounding this topic, data from the Department of Homeland Security paints a complex picture about the state of interior enforcement actions under President Trump. Although funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and its removal operations has increased significantly over the last two years, this data shows that interior removal numbers have remained low compared to those seen during President Obama’s first term, suggesting that President Trump’s efforts to expand interior enforcement may not be generating the outcomes suggested by his hardline rhetoric so far.
Overall, DHS data shows that interior removals during President Trump’s first two years in office increased significantly in 2017 and 2018 from levels during the last years of the Obama presidency. Although total removals only matched the last years of Obama only in 2018, these levels are still below the Obama administration’s record deportation numbers from 2008 to 2014. As Figure 1 shows, removals of migrants arrested in the interior of the country increased 30 percent between 2016 and 2018, while overall removals dipped in 2017 due to a lower number of border apprehensions that year. The increase in interior removals was reflected of policy change enacted shortly after President Trump’s inauguration, when he adopted his executive order on interior enforcement, expanding enforcement actions in the United States and targeting more undocumented immigrants for removal.
Data on the various categories of removals offers a different perspective on these same trends. According to DHS data available through 2017, removals done through processes without a hearing before an immigration judge increased during the final years of the Obama administration. As Figure 2 shows, the period between 2011 and 2013 saw a significant increase in the number of expedited removals for migrants apprehended directly at the U.S. border and reinstatement of removal for those apprehended inside the United States or at the U.S. border who were previously removed from the country. However, all other removals, which includes removals ordered by immigration judges, decreased significantly as a portion of overall DHS removals between 2010 and 2015, meaning that fewer people participated in removal processes before an immigration judge during this time.
Government data also shows that the removal of non-citizens with prior criminal convictions has dropped in recent years. As Figure 4 shows, the number of people with prior criminal convictions decreased from 200,039 in Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 to 121,301 in FY2017, a decrease of 39 percent. Despite the decrease in removals of people with prior criminal convictions, the top three largest criminal conviction categories for these individual removals did not change during this period, with immigration convictions emerging as the largest group since FY2012 and dangerous drug and traffic offenses forming the second and third largest groups.
DHS data shows that funding for ICE increased significantly between 2014 and 2018. As Figure 5 shows, the overall budget grew by over $1.5 billion during this period, hitting a new historic peak in 2018 when ICE received $7.6 billion. While current interior removal numbers are at or below Obama-era levels, funding for Enforcement and Removal Operations, the ICE office responsible for detaining and removing non-citizens, increased by $500 million between 2017 and 2018. Given the lower number of removals, this increase mostly reflects the increase in detention, which coincided with the increase in administrative arrests by ICE in the interior.
These trends paint a complex picture of interior enforcement during President Trump’s first two years in office. Interior removals under President Trump are at levels lower than those seen during President Obama’s first term, even though ICE arrests and funding for ICE’s removal operations have increased in recent years. While factors such as the extensive immigration court backlog have contributed to the decline in removals, the influx of asylum cases from migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border has also emerged as a major factor in recent years. During expedited removal proceedings, non-citizens can make a credible fear claim for asylum and appeal failed credible fear interviews to the immigration court system. Given that the immigration court backlog has generated nearly two-year long wait times, the higher rates of expedited removal may not immediately impact this population of asylum seekers, which has increased as more migrants from Central America arrive at the United States seeking asylum.
Funding for interior enforcement activities is emerging as a contentious area of debate in the current era of divided government as the immigration system confronts this challenge. During the negotiations around the FY2019 DHS funding bill for instance, Democrats called for setting a strict cap on the number of detention beds that ICE maintains for non-citizens in their custody due to interior arrests, as a means of forcing ICE to prioritize those resources to more serious criminals, as was the practice under the Obama administration. Although Democrats eventually relented in these discussions, they managed in the final appropriations law to reduce funding to the level of the average daily population of beds in FY2018. Conflicts over enforcement funding will likely remain contentious, especially if House Democrats try use their leverage over DHS appropriations to counter the White House’s enforcement agenda. Although the final FY2019 appropriations bill eventually emerged as a strong bipartisan compromise with minor but significant boosts for the immigration system—including hiring more immigration judges—it remains to be seen whether these conflicts will derail future efforts to strengthen the immigration system, especially as it struggles to manage the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.