After waiting six months for Senate confirmation, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) decided to retire. Thomas Homan has run the agency since President Donald Trump took office. But in his short tenure, he managed to balloon immigration arrests by 40 percent. Now, some are questioning whether his methods really made the United States any safer.
Last year, Homan said immigrants “should be afraid” of deportation, just as someone speeding down the highway should be “looking over their shoulder” for a patrolman. But there are various levels of punishment on the books for different immigration offenses. Entering the country without the approval of an immigration officer only amounts to a misdemeanor—equivalent to speeding in some states—although repeat illegal entry can be a felony. Overstaying a legal visa, the root of 45 percent of undocumented cases, is a civil violation, not a criminal one.
With an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States, most experts agree attempting to deport all of them at once presents insurmountable logistical challenges. While waiting for Congress to pass a legislative solution, President Barack Obama established his own system of prioritization: Target violent criminals for deportation first. Under that system, Obama deported more immigrants than any other president, earning the nickname “deporter in chief.” In 2012, he also chose to “defer action” on the less-threatening childhood arrivals—immigrant children brought to the country illegally, or who have fallen into undocumented status.
Homan did away with the prioritization system for arrests, partly by broadening the definition of “criminal” to include misdemeanors. And while immigration arrests overall rose 40 percent under Homan’s watch, deportations did not. That caused a spike in the number immigrant detainees and a growing backlog of immigration cases, prompting Trump to try speeding up the process with case quotas for immigration judges.
ICE claims 90 percent of its arrests from fiscal year 2017 involve immigrants with criminal offenses, under their new definition. Pew Research put that number at about 75 percent. But the number of noncriminal arrests has doubled since Trump took office, totaling 37,734 for fiscal year 2017.
Matthew Soerens of World Relief and the Evangelical Immigration Roundtable said ICE should use its prosecutorial discretion on the most violent of criminals, like those with terror ties.
“A local police chief can’t ticket every individual who speeds, and if they focused their resources on trying to do so, they’d probably miss opportunities to prosecute people committing more serious and likely harmful offenses, like violent crime or driving under the influence,” he said, borrowing Homan’s analogy. “I fear that, by broadening the scope of priorities to include nearly all undocumented immigrants—including those never convicted of a crime, who are deportable because of a violation of civil (not criminal) law—ICE is actually less able to focus on those who are most likely to present a threat.” —L.F.