Arrests of undocumented immigrants plunged by more than 60% in February compared to the average in the final weeks of the Trump administration, according to data reviewed by The Washington Post. Deportations have fallen by roughly amount, the paper reported.
President Joe Biden came into office promising to halt most deportations in his first 100 days. But that plan was put on hold when a US judge, appointed by his predecessor and responding to a lawsuit by Texas’ Republican attorney general, ruled that the moratorium violated federal law.
The Biden administration has, in lieu of a total pause, issued guidance to Immigration and Customs Enforcement that strictly limits the conditions under which someone may be removed from the country. Agents may no longer target someone as a criminal, eligible for expulsion, over a nonviolent drug offense, for example.
“They’ve abolished ICE without abolishing ICE,” one anonymous agency official complained to The Post last month.
The impact has been stark. On average, The Post reported, ICE arrested almost 6,800 people per month from October to December 2020.
In February, Biden’s first full month in office, that number fell to less than 2,500. The US also deported about 2,600 people, down from more than 5,600 the month before.
But those figures do not tell the full story: The current administration is unlikely to satisfy either immigration activists or hard-liners.
While the new administration has started accepting unaccompanied minors who cross the border – a record 3,200 were in Border Patrol custody as of this week – it continues to expel others in the name of public health, upholding a Trump-era rule from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adopted amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In January, over 62,000 people were subject to such “Title 14” expulsions after crossing the border, according to US Customs and Border Protection.
US District Judge Drew Tipton granted a preliminary injunction on Tuesday, halting the moratorium that the Biden administration announced last month.
The ruling serves as a win for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, who filed a lawsuit against the government over the moratorium. The administration’s policy was unveiled by the US Department of Homeland Security in a memorandum shortly after Biden’s inauguration.
Last month, Tipton, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, issued a 14-day temporary restraining order to stop any enforcement of the moratorium, arguing at the time that the Homeland Security memo didn’t “consider potential policies more limited in scope and time” or “provide any concrete, reasonable justification for a 100-day pause.”
Tipton also ruled last month that the moratorium ran afoul of federal law on administrative procedure and that the administration didn’t sufficiently justify the pause.
Tuesday’s injunction will extend the temporary restraining order. However, this ruling does not mandate that deportations have to go back to to their previous rate. Even in the absence of a moratorium, federal immigration agencies will have wide leeway in enforcing deportations and processing cases.
Biden, who campaigned on a 100-day deportation freeze during his campaign as a part of his review of immigration policies and enforcement, has sought to turn the page from Trump’s aggressive crackdown on immigration.
The president has proposed a comprehensive immigration bill that would offer a pathway to citizenship for roughly 11 million people who are living in the United States illegally.
After years of false starts, Democrats are hoping to finally pass a large-scale overhaul, but top Republicans have already begun rallying against any policies they deem as granting “amnesty.”
The judicial fight over the deportation ban is an early indicator of GOP resistance to Biden’s immigration priorities, a reversal of the frequent Democratic-led judicial battles against Trump’s proposals.
As of Wednesday morning, it was not yet clear if the Biden administration plans to appeal Tipton’s latest ruling.
The Biden administration will temporarily halt most deportations “to ensure we have a fair and effective immigration enforcement system,” the Department of Homeland Security announced Wednesday.
The pause will begin Friday and last 100 days.
President Joe Biden committed to the moratorium on removal proceedings last year while campaigning for the Democratic nomination. That marked a reversal for the candidate, who in 2019 clashed with an immigrant rights activist who had demanded just that.
In a statement, David Pekoske, acting secretary of the DHS, said the pause will allow the department “to review and reset enforcement polices.”
It will also “allow DHS to ensure that its resources are dedicated to responding the most pressing challenges that the United States faces, including immediate operational challenges at the southwest border in the midst of the most serious global public health crisis in a century,” he said.
The statement noted that the moratorium will only apply “for certain noncitizens.” The department did not immediately respond to a request for clarification. During the campaign, Biden committed to halting “any deportations of people already in the United States.”
The move is one of a slew of immigration-related announcements to come in the first hours of the Biden administration.
More than 1,300 people have been raped, kidnapped, or otherwise assaulted since February 2019, when the Trump administration began requiring asylum-seekers to wait out their claims in Mexico, according to a new report.
“Continuing to turn away and expel people seeking US refugee protection at the southern border is both a humanitarian disgrace and a legal travesty,” Kennji Kizuka, a researcher at Human Rights First, which put out the study, said Wednesday. “The Trump administration is flouting US laws and treaty obligations to protect refugees, and weaponizing the pandemic to block and expel people seeking safety in the United States.”
But Kizuka told Business Insider that the report from Human Rights First understates the problem, noting that assaults against those deported under a more recent Center for Disease Control and Prevention order have not actually been included in the count, which is limited to those expelled under the “Remain in Mexico” program. Due to that program, 23,000 people are currently waiting, in Mexico, to hear if their fears of violence will be sufficient to gain asylum in the US.
In March, the CDC issued an order effectively denying the right to seek asylum – an order that CBS News reported came only after intense lobbying from the White House – the US has expelled over 260,000 migrants, including at least 8,800 unaccompanied children, per Human Rights First (the ACLU estimates the number was more like 14,000 by November).
And the Trump administration has continued deporting kids even after a court order explicitly demanding that it stop, a US judge having ruled in November that the expulsions violate migrants’ right to due process; dozens have been sent back to Mexico anyway.
“This is what the Trump administration is doing to migrants in the name of stopping the spread of COVID while they hold lavish holiday parties inside The White House with no social distancing or masks, “Al Otro Lado, a nonprofit that assists immigrants at the border, said in response to the report. “This was never about stopping COVID-19.”
The incoming Biden administration has pledged to revisit the CDC’s order and immediately end the “Remain in Mexico” program. For many, however, the damage will have already been done. According to Human Rights First, at least 318 children returned to Mexico – whether they were from there originally or not – “were kidnapped or subjected to kidnapping attempts.” That figure includes only those victims who were willing to come forward and speak to journalists or researchers.
The stories that have been told are horrific. In May, for example, an asylum-seeking couple from Cuba were kidnapped immediately after they were returned to Nuevo Laredo by US officials, “held by armed men in a room covered in blood where migrants with missing body parts moaned on the floor,” according to Human Rights First.
Critics don’t just blame the United States, however. The Remain in Mexico program is only possible, after all, because the government of center-left President Andrés Manuel López Obrador agreed to it. On Wednesday, two Mexican nonprofit organizations, the Institute for Women in Migration and the Foundation for Justice and the Democratic State of Law, filed a complaint with Mexico’s top prosecutor demanding an investigation into the de facto impunity enjoyed by those who victimize US asylum-seekers in the country.
The attorney general should not only look for those criminals, they said, “but also they should investigate the criminal liability of the Mexican authorities that have assumed the obligation of guarantors [of migrant safety] and have breached it,” the Mexican outlet Animal Politico reported.
Many of those being denied entry to the US, meanwhile, are coming from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, countries that the Trump administration at least publicly considers violent and politically repressive. Some have managed to avoid the Remain in Mexico program only to be forcibly returned to the hands of a government they fled.
Valeska Alemán Sandoval, a Nicaraguan student activist, told this reporter she was tortured by a pro-government paramilitary group, a toenail ripped out, and forced by police to record a “confession” identifying her fellow anti-austerity protesters as criminals and drug addicts. But the Nicaraguan government, while adamantly “anti-imperialist” in its rhetoric, closely collaborates with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, helping the Trump administration expedite the deportation of its own citizens.
In August, Alemán was a beneficiary of this international cooperation and put on a flight back to Managua, where Nicaraguan authorities were waiting.