US arrests at border fell while Ice arrests rose during Trump's first eight months

Amanda Holpuch in New York

From Trump’s inauguration to the end of September, there was a 40% increase in Ice arrests – and many arrested had deep connections in the US, activists say

A section of the US-Mexico border fence at San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora state on 15 February 2017.
A section of the US-Mexico border fence at San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora state, on 15 February 2017. Photograph: Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

US immigration officials on Tuesday said arrests at the border had fallen in Donald Trump’s first eight months in office while rates of people arrested in the US away from the border soared.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) numbers provide the first detailed picture of the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement, which human rights advocates said seemed to be targeting people with deep ties to the US. Advocates are also concerned because the release showed the plight of people fleeing violence in Central America is still severe.

From Trump’s inauguration in January to the end of September, there was a 40% increase in arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice). Because Ice operates in the country’s interior while Customs and Border Protection (CBP) oversees the border, DHS supervises both agencies.

Clara Long, a senior researcher for the US program at Human Rights Watch, said people arrested in the interior were more likely to have deep connections to the US through family, friends and work.

“Many of them are being ripped apart from family, from home, from businesses, from jobs without consideration of family ties that they have to the US,” Long told the Guardian. “That has devastating impacts on families and communities.”

Human Rights Watch on Tuesday afternoon released the results of a six-month examination of the impact these deportations had on people who had been living in the US interior long term. The report detailed people being forced out of the country, away from their loved ones, after decades of building lives, having children, starting businesses and paying taxes in the US. “All undocumented people in the US now have reason to fear deportation, regardless of the strength of their ties to the US,” the report said.

The administration has said its immigration policies emphasize national security but there is no indication that a higher rate of dangerous criminals are being apprehended, detained or deported, compared with under Barack Obama.

In explaining the preponderance of Ice arrests under Trump, DHS did not separate people who were convicted criminals from people who had not been convicted or who had entered the country more than once without legal papers. DHS said 92% of people Ice arrested from the inauguration through September “had a criminal conviction or a pending criminal charge, were an Ice fugitive, or were an illegal re-entrant”.

Long told the Guardian: “Ice’s press release today tries very hard to make the argument that Ice continues to prioritize people who are so-called criminals ... But they also lump huge numbers of people into the pot they call criminals, including people who don’t have criminal convictions.”

The DHS release also included numbers from the final four months of Obama’s second term, including the three-month period between Trump’s election win and his inauguration.

Those numbers showed Central Americans continue to come into the country at high rates because of violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

CBP said while there was an overall decline in border apprehensions, there continued to be an increase in people traveling from Central America, including unaccompanied children.

The Obama administration last year took steps to address this issue, which DHS described in July 2016 as a “humanitarian challenge” that primarily affected vulnerable people.

On Tuesday, DHS took a much harsher position on such people, suggesting they abuse US immigration laws and pose a threat to the US.

“CBP continues to be concerned about steady increase in the flow of unaccompanied children and family units from Central America, as transnational criminal organizations continue to exploit legal and policy loopholes to help illegal aliens gain entry and facilitate their release into the interior of the country,” the release said.

Joanne Lin, Amnesty International USA’s national director of governmental affairs and advocacy, said the continued increase in people fleeing Central America demonstrated how desperate the situation was for people living there.

“The fact that we’re still seeing these vulnerable asylum seekers make the journey to the United States is strong evidence that they are genuine refugees and they do need humanitarian protection in the United States,” she said.

The acting DHS secretary, Elaine Duke, commended the president in a statement. She said: “We have an obligation to uphold the integrity of our immigration system, but we must do more to step up and close loopholes to protect the American worker, our economy, and our communities.”