Over the first full 14 months of the Trump administration, 69% of undocumented immigrants arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents had a criminal record. Over the final two years of the Obama administration, that number was 86%
ICE agents have arrested an average of 4,143 undocumented immigrants without a criminal record each month under the Trump administration. In the final two years under Obama, the agents averaged 1,703 a month.
Those numbers show the radical change in immigration enforcement implemented by President Trump, who issued new directives to ICE shortly after taking office in January 2017.
Previously, ICE agents were told to prioritize their efforts on undocumented immigrants with serious criminal histories, including felonies, multiple misdemeanors, gang convictions, or other factors that made them a threat to public safety. Despite his campaign vow to go after "bad hombres," Trump instructed ICE to arrest any undocumented immigrant its agents encountered, which has led to the sharp increase.
Corey Price, assistant director of enforcement for ICE, said it's wrong to call any undocumented immigrant a "non-criminal" since they either entered the country illegally or stayed in the country after the expiration of their visa. He said that shift in approach has allowed his agents to drive up their arrest numbers, nabbing both convicted criminals and those who have violated immigration laws, "all of which are federal crimes."
"Our scope was significantly narrow (under Obama)," Price said. "Obviously the aperture has been opened."
Critics of the administration say rounding up thousands of undocumented immigrants who are working, contributing to their communities and staying out of trouble is not only a waste of federal resources, but part of a larger effort to demonize immigrants.
Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, said Trump has repeatedly tried to wrap all immigrants under a blanket of terrorism and gang violence. Trump's comments on Wednesday, when he referred to some undocumented immigrants as "animals," was just the latest example of that strategy, Jawetz said.
"You want to talk about refugees? He talks about ISIS. You want to talk about people fleeing violence and persecution? He talks about MS-13," Jawetz said. "Ultimately the goal is both mass deportation of people who are here, and closing down our borders to those who still want to come, and the way you carry out that policy effort, from his perspective, is to drive fear as much as possible."
Supporters of the president's immigration stance call those numbers proof of a campaign pledge fulfilled. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said ICE agents had been wrongly restrained under Obama. In order to have a lawful immigration system, Krikorian said, ICE agents must go after all immigration violators, not just those who committed additional crimes once they entered the country.
"It's kind of like the IRS: if the only people they audited were Colombian drug dealers and Russian mobsters, then they're not doing their job because part of their job is routine oversight and compliance with the law," he said.