ICE detention numbers continue to decline, for the wrong reasons

Immigration and Customs Enforcement released new, more comprehensive datasets this week  (this link updates regularly – I’m accessing August 23) regarding the number of people in detention and those participating in the “alternative to detention” program – which is principally ankle-monitoring. The numbers have fallen off pretty dramatically since last year. Fiscal year 2020 began on October 1, 2019 with approximately 53,000 people incarcerated by ICE. There are 21,007 people in ICE custody as of August 15, 2020. Of these, 20,785 are in adult detention facilities, and 222 are in Family Residential Centers – which means a mix of adults and children who are a part of family units. That is an enormous decline – and certainly in other times would be cause for some cautious optimism. However, in the current context this number reflects trends outside of ICE’s detention network that are seriously disturbing: Massive summary expulsions at the border and ongoing deportations. 

People transferred to detention facilities (“book-ins”) come from two main sources: arrests at the border, and internal removal operations. In recent years the number of people transferred from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) constituted a majority of people in detention (73% in FY 2019). Now, these transfers are a much smaller portion of those in custody. Of the 3,986 people booked into ICE custody thus far in August, for example, only 736 were transferred from CBP, or 18%. Back in October the percentage of people booked-in from CBP was 54%, or 13,303 of 24,728. Looking at month to month trends, we can see that the CBP numbers drop off dramatically from March to April of this year and this is due to one primary cause: Title 42 removals. 

Title 42 removals are in essence, summary expulsions from the U.S. under the framework of a Center for Disease Control order concerning border controls as a response to COVID-19. At the southern border this has meant a halt to all “non-essential” travel across ports of entry (including applications for asylum), and the immediate expulsion of anyone crossing between ports of entry. People who are picked up by CBP are now simply removed, with no due process. In most cases they are not even given identification numbers (an “A” number) that would allow them to be tracked and contacted by family members. Indeed, if people arrested are from Mexico or Central America they are removed by land immediately – in essence, simply pushed back across the border with no more processing than a name check. For people from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, where they end up is far from clear. Some have been pushed back into Mexico as well, even though Mexico initially refused to accept them. Others, children and families in particular, have been placed in hotels in Texas until they can be removed. Finally, because they are not processed the same as before, others just disappear into Border Patrol or U.S. Marshall custody until they can be expelled. Advocates working with people from Haiti, for example, have been unable to find them between the time of arrest and their expulsion.

So, long story short, the fall off in the number of transfers from CBP, and hence a major source of the decline in ICE detentions, is not the result of more humane treatment at the border, but quite the opposite. From March 18 through the end of July, more than 105,000 people had been expelled under Title 42.  

The number of book-ins is also down because ICE reduced – they did NOT suspend – internal removal operations. From March to June the number of people transferred to detention facilities as a result of ICE internal operations fell about 50% – from 10,153 in March to 5,608 in April and to a monthly low of 5,090 in June. There is a backstory here as well. On March 18, 2020, the acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Matthew Albence, issued a statement declaring, “[t]o ensure the welfare and safety of the general public as well as officers and agents in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic response … [ICE] will temporarily adjust its enforcement posture.” The statement was not vetted by administration officials, and apparently folks in the Trump inner circle were angry. Though Albence was no humanitarian, it is probably not a coincidence that he then announced his retirement in July under pressure from the Miller wing of the immigration Stasi. Also, probably not a coincidence, in July the number of ICE transfers into detention from internal removal operations began to creep back up, and so far in August are at a pace to go over 8,000 for the month.

As noted ICE was holding about 53,000 people at the beginning of the fiscal year. There have been 169,811 book-ins since then. 21,007 people remain in custody. That means close to 202,000 people have left ICE custody over the year. Where did they go? Most were deported. ICE reports 173,358 removals so far this fiscal year. To be clear, this does NOT include the 110,000 people removed through Title 42 expulsions – which by and large are tracked and enforced by Customs and Border Protection, not ICE. 

We, and others, have written extensively about ongoing deportations during COVID-19. Last week a few new pieces came out documenting how deportations are spreading COVID-19. The Miami Herald also published an investigative article into the companies making money from the process, which we also discussed here.

So, there is little to celebrate in the fall off in detention to a near twenty year low of 21,007. Rather, it is the result of inhumane, possibly illegal, summary expulsions at the border, a temporary reduction of ICE enforcement operations (which was good news, but fleeting), and the administration’s decision to continue to deport people all over the world despite just about everybody from the New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe, to members of the House and Senate, to literally hundreds of human rights organizations and thousands of others telling them to stop. Given that the administration has now reached the bottom in terms of Border Patrol transfers, and ICE seems prepared to increase internal removal operations again, this number is likely to begin increasing again. 

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