After a Rough Year, Congress Squeezes ICE



Beleaguered by an “unprecedented challenge” from the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained and deported far fewer illegal aliens in 2020. With Congress now applying budget cuts, don’t expect the numbers to improve.

In a year-end report, ICE said the average daily population (ADP) at its Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) detention facilities dropped to 33,724, down 33 percent from 2019. While some of the decline was due to a decrease in arrivals at the southern border, much was attributed COVID safety protocols and related court-ordered releases. In any event, the declining ADP does not reflect an increase in deportations.

On the bright side, ICE said the number of aliens on its “non-detained docket” remained steady at 3.26 million. But that’s not much of an achievement. A majority of these individuals targeted for deportation had criminal records, yet ICE acknowledged that only a tiny fraction were actually in custody.

The agency stated that it “maintained its commitment to removing those aliens posing the greatest risk to the safety and security of the United States.” But ERO removals of convicted criminal aliens fell from 150,141 in 2019 to 103,762 in 2020 – a 30 percent decrease. It was the second straight annual decline.

While the numbers have tumbled, ICE called the decreases “the result of temporary conditions during a global pandemic” and suggested that things “may shift rapidly once conditions resolve.”

In fact, they may continue heading in the wrong direction as incoming President Joe Biden expresses little interest in detaining or deporting illegal aliens.

Making it harder for ICE to do its job, Congress voted last month to reduce the agency’s budget by $107 million ($1.96 billion less than the Trump administration requested).

Detention beds for the new fiscal year were cut from 45,274 to 34,000. The appropriation does not mandate a floor for detention beds, meaning that ICE is not required to detain a minimum number of people. 

Lawmakers also blocked use of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services fees for ICE investigations, and rejected requests for more deportation officers.

Congress isn’t abolishing ICE, but the squeeze is on. With less room at the ICE inn, more criminal aliens will go free. And, as recent releases from the Adelanto, Calif., detention facility have shown, public safety suffers when that happens.

About Author

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Bob Dane, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR)'s Executive Director, has been with FAIR since 2006. His deep belief is that immigration is the most transformational determinant of where we are heading as a nation and that our policies must be reformed in the public interest. Over many years on thousands of radio, TV and print interviews, Bob has made the case that unless immigration is regulated and sensibly reduced, it will be difficult for America to reduce unemployment, increase wages, improve health care and education and heighten national security. Prior to joining FAIR, Bob spent twenty years in network radio, marketing and communications after an earlier career in policy and budgeting within the Reagan Administration. Bob has a degree from George Mason University in Public Administration and Management.

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