Before President Trump declared a national emergency on the U.S. southern border on Feb. 15, he cited concerns that the United States was being flooded with murderers, kidnappers and other violent offenders from foreign countries.
According to new U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement figures obtained by The Washington Post, the nation’s immigration jails were not filled with such criminals. As of Feb. 9, days before the president’s declaration, nearly 63 percent of the detainees in ICE jails had not been convicted of any crime.
Of the 48,793 immigrants jailed on Feb. 9, the ICE data shows, 18,124 had criminal records. An additional 5,715 people had pending criminal charges, officials said, but they did not provide details. ICE also did not break down the severity of the crimes committed by or attributed to detainees.
An average of 59 percent of detainees in custody during this fiscal year had no criminal history, according to ICE.
“It proves this is a fake emergency,” said Kevin Appleby, policy director at the Center for Migration Studies, a New York-based nonpartisan immigration think tank. “It really shows that what the president’s doing is abusing his power based on false information.”
ICE acting director Ronald Vitiello and Deputy Director Matthew Albence declined to comment Friday and referred questions to the White House. Officials there did not respond to a request for comment.
During the budget debate earlier this month, Albence said all detainees have violated federal laws, “by coming here illegally, or coming here legally and overstaying their visas.”
He told reporters last week that the nation “cannot have a system whereby immigration enforcement is only effectuated against those individuals once they commit a subsequent crime to their initial immigration violation.”
During Trump’s Rose Garden announcement of the emergency declaration — a bid to use taxpayer money to build more than 230 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border — he alleged that there was an ongoing “invasion of drugs, invasion of gangs, invasion of people,” including gang members he called “monsters” and migrants who have killed U.S. citizens.
“It’s an invasion,” he said. “We have an invasion of drugs and criminals coming into our country that we stop, but it’s very hard to stop. With a wall, it would be very easy.”
Days earlier at a Cabinet meeting, as a budget deal over border security and immigration enforcement was falling into place, the president said U.S. officials were nabbing “incredible” numbers of criminals. Taking a card handed to him by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, he read from a list of crimes allegedly committed by immigrants: “Robberies: 11,177. Kidnappings: 4,112. Murders: 3,914.”
“So these are people that ICE is dealing with, and nobody can deal with them more effectively,” Trump said. “There’s probably no group in this country that does so much and gets, really, so little respect or love as ICE. It’s really a terrible thing. They’re doing an incredible job.”
House Democrats say they will vote Tuesday to terminate Trump’s emergency declaration, accusing the president of peddling a false narrative that immigrants pose a broad threat to public safety. Advocates have cited studies showing immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the rest of the population.
The Democrats’ measure had more than 220 backers Friday, according to its sponsor, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.). But its fate is unclear in the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority. Some GOP members rapped ICE’s lack of “fiscal discipline” last year, saying the agency “continues to spend at an unsustainable rate.”
A House Democratic aide said Friday that staffers had asked the Trump administration for a breakdown of the criminals and non-criminals in immigration detention — which is a civil system for deportation proceedings only — and did not receive it before they voted on a budget deal that ended a month-long government shutdown. That budget increased the average daily number of detention beds from 40,500 to more than 45,000.
Because lawmakers did not have the information, the aide said, they included language accompanying the budget that requires ICE to report on the criminal breakdown of immigrants in their custody within 30 days. Such detailed breakdowns would show the public what percentage of immigrants held in ICE custody have criminal records.
ICE had said it was unable to provide the breakdown of the criminals in its custody to The Washington Post during the 35-day government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history, because it went beyond the duties allowed during the stalemate.
Immigration officials have said arresting and deporting criminals is their top priority, and thousands are taken into custody, put on airplanes and dispatched to foreign countries every year. In fiscal 2018, officials said the agency deported 256,000 people, more than half of whom had a criminal history.
Because immigration records are not public, it is impossible to independently verify ICE’s statistics.
ICE has also pointed out that Trump gave the agency wide latitude to arrest anyone in the United States illegally, whether or not they are criminals.
“Immigration law isn’t just about bouncing criminals out of the country,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and a supporter of increased enforcement at the border. “If every illegal alien were Mother Teresa, they would be deportable.”
During the budget debate, ICE said that 72 percent of the detainees are subject to “mandatory detention,” including some who have criminal records and those who crossed the border illegally and are subject to a speedy deportation process.
When some Democrats tried to cap the number of detention beds, Albence warned on national television that thousands of serious criminals could be released into the United States.
But the American Civil Liberties Union said ICE is broadly interpreting who is subject to mandatory detention and has the flexibility to release more, especially those without criminal records.
“To the extent they’re saying they need massive increases in detention beds and new detention centers all over the country in order to keep dangerous criminal aliens from running amok in the streets, that’s not true. They’re lying,” said Michael Tan, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project in New York. “Their own data show that that’s not the people they’re locking up.”
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