WASHINGTON - At the detention centers and county jails that the Trump administration once filled with immigrants facing deportation, thousands of beds are empty. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers that president Donald Trump lavished with praise have far less to do on the streets these days.
Under new Biden administration rules curtailing immigration enforcement, ICE carried out fewer than 3,000 deportations last month, the lowest level on record. The agency's 6,000 officers currently average one arrest every two months.
ICE under President Biden is an agency on probation. The new administration has rejected calls from some Democrats to eliminate the agency entirely, but Biden has placed ICE deportation officers on a leash so tight that some say their work is being functionally abolished.
The immigrant advocacy groups and lawyers who wield significant influence in the Biden White House are pushing to eliminate more detention facilities and reduce deportations even further, despite a 20-year high in illegal border crossings.
The Biden administration is preparing to release its first Department of Homeland Security budget request this week, and immigrant advocates want deep cuts to ICE. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced plans last week to shutter two ICE detention centers, but in an interview he said he does not want to reduce ICE staffing or funding. He wants to reorient ICE, not shrink it, he said.
"I really am focused on it becoming a premier national security and law enforcement agency," Mayorkas said. "I really want to elevate all of the other work [ICE] does and also ensure that its civil immigration work is well-focused in the service of the national security and public safety mission."
That approach has translated to a new set of marching orders, or interim priorities, for ICE deportation officers that have significantly scaled back street-level enforcement. Under Biden’s new rules, deportation officers must seek written authorization from senior-level supervisors to arrest anyone who is not a recent border crosser, a national security threat, or an aggravated felon who poses a public safety hazard.
Before placing a “detainer” on an immigrant in a jail or prison — essentially asking another law enforcement agency to hold that person until ICE can assume custody — officers must also seek approval from one of the agency’s most senior regional directors.
ICE officials frustrated with the changes describe a workplace environment where officers spend time doing paperwork, idling, or working out, more fearful of facing reprimand for making an arrest than not making one.
One of the priority groups, recent border crossers, are effectively no longer subject to arrest once they reach the US interior. Unaccompanied minors and families are also largely exempt, unless they are convicted of a serious crime.
"It's a weird, frustrating time," said one ICE official, who is not authorized to speak to reporters, describing a climate of distrust. "It feels like the administration doesn't have our backs."
A final version of ICE’s priorities was due to be completed this month, but Mayorkas said that his review isn’t finished and he expects to make “significant changes” when the assessment is complete.
"What those changes will be, I am wrestling with right now, quite frankly," said Mayorkas, who has indicated at times that the current priorities may be constricting ICE officers too much. In recent weeks, he has held town hall events with ICE officers and staff members to solicit their views.
Mayorkas and other Biden appointees say they are determined to use the agency's limited resources to improve the quality of its law enforcement work, breaking with the notion that success should be measured based on the number of arrests and deportations ICE racks up.
Democrats to the left of Biden want the White House to move faster with its overhaul. “They have begun to do a lot of things to roll back the worst pieces of Trump administration policies, and their biggest accomplishment has been changing immigration enforcement in the interior to scale back who is being detained,” Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington, said in an interview.
Jayapal said the administration still isn't "where we want them to be," and urged a full halt to deportations. "We have to have a moratorium to fully assess what's been going on," she said.
Biden ordered a 100-day freeze on most deportations when he took office, but the move was blocked in federal court. Republican attorneys general in several states are suing the administration, arguing that their states are being harmed by weakened immigration enforcement.
"The Biden administration and its radical allies are effectively abolishing ICE through administrative acts," said Arizona Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich, listing thousands of crimes committed in his state last year that he said would no longer put an offender on a path to deportation.
Immigrants and their advocates insist that ICE is beyond reforming, saying it is a secretive agency that disproportionately targets people of color. "This agency has to be investigated about abuses and violence," said Ravi Ragbir, 56, a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago who was allowed to stay in the United States after serving 30 months in federal prison for financial crimes and then two years in immigration detention.
Ragbir, the executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, a collection of 150 organizations, has accused ICE of attempting to deport him in 2018 after he became an outspoken advocate for immigrants. "No one should be in detention, period," he said.
Mayorkas has sought to spotlight ICE's more popular duties. Where the Trump administration erected billboards with mug shots of immigrants it wanted to deport, his agency has promoted ICE's often overlooked investigative division, a separate unit that arrests Americans and noncitizens alike for crimes such as drug trafficking and sexual exploitation of children. ICE also stopped using the term "alien," part of Biden's efforts to take a more humane approach to immigration.
Part of ICE's image problem - a Pew Research Center poll last year ranked the agency's public approval rating lower than that of the Internal Revenue Service - is that many in the public do not think the agency is making them safer.
Representative David Price, a North Carolina Democrat, said at a House budget hearing this month that ICE had billed itself as an agency that focuses on “dangerous individuals” and then targeted people who were not dangerous.
"I want to register the hope and the belief that in the new administration we're going to see some serious changes," he said.
ICE acting director Tae Johnson testified at the hearing that the agency is "hyper focused" on serious offenders under the new administration, and the data reflect that. ICE agents arrested 645 people who matched the administration's new priorities in March, and then more than doubled that number in April, to 1,552, he said.
"The data shows that the individuals with the highest level of criminality is up," Johnson said. "And while our overall arrest numbers might not ever be as high as they were, I do expect the number of violent offenders to increase because folks are spending their time working on those types of cases."
Republicans say ICE should continue to do its work unhindered, communicating with local and state police to find out whom they arrest and whether they are eligible for deportation.
“ICE is a crucial component in our ability to enforce immigration, customs and trade laws in our country,” said Representative Charles “Chuck” Fleischmann of Tennessee at the hearing. “To demand that the agency responsible for enforcing those national security laws be dismantled is unconscionable.”
John Sandweg, who was the agency's acting director in 2013 and 2014, said ICE officers have become skilled at making lists of people to target for arrest and then going out and finding them. He is among those arguing for a shift to more investigative work, and a major effort to rebuild partnerships with urban police departments in cities where immigrants are often victimized by criminals in their own communities.
"The problem is the agency has always been judged by how many deportations and arrests it makes, which creates pressure to reach numerical benchmarks," he said.
ICE is facing increasing resistance to its work: Hundreds of sanctuary jurisdictions nationwide limit how much police cooperate with ICE. California, home to the largest number of undocumented immigrants in the United States, Washington state, and Illinois have banned for-profit immigration detention centers.
Even Biden’s pick to serve as the new ICE director, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez in Harris County, Texas, severed an agreement with ICE because he worried that it impeded public safety.