Deportation cases in U.S. balloon as border numbers rise

REUTERS/Marco Bello
Asylum-seeking migrants from Colombia board a Customs and Border Patrol transport van after crossing the Rio Grande, as U.S. authorities, blocked by a federal judge from lifting COVID-19 restrictions that empower agents at the U.S.-Mexico border to turn back migrants, continue to enforce the Title 42 rules which result in the fast expulsion of migrants to Mexico or other countries, in Del Rio, Texas, U.S. May 22, 2022

More than 4.7 million immigrants in the United States were facing deportation proceedings in fiscal 2022, according to a federal report released Friday, a 29 percent jump from the same period the year before.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said its civil immigration workload “increased significantly” last fiscal year largely due to record numbers of migrants showing up at the southern border, according to its annual report detailing the agency’s actions from Oct. 1, 2021, to Sept. 30.

ICE is a broad agency that enforces civil and criminal laws, but it is perhaps best known for its controversial role in detaining and deporting immigrants for the Department of Homeland Security. In past years, ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations officers have focused their arrests away from the border, and said they prioritize immigrants who allegedly commit crimes.

But officials said the agency is increasingly being drawn into border enforcement, and has dispatched 1,000 officers to the border to help Customs and Border Protection officers process new arrivals and either deport or “expel” them, or admit them into the United States to await a hearing in immigration court.

ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations officers arrested 142,750 migrants last fiscal year, nearly double the year before. Most were people who had already been apprehended at the southern border and then transferred into the agency’s custody, officials said.

Among them were 46,396 noncitizens with a criminal history, similar to the year before, but below the more than 90,000 with criminal records taken into custody in fiscal 2020, the report said.

ICE also deported 72,177 people to Mexico and dozens of other countries last fiscal year. Far more immigrants were expelled under a pandemic public health order known as Title 42, more than 1 million last fiscal year, but those are not counted as formal deportations.

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE and CBP, has not said how many migrants are showing up unexpectedly at the border to request asylum, which is a legal grounds to stay in the country, or to work, which is not.

Acting ICE director Tae Johnson said in a telephone briefing with reporters on Friday that the agency is committed to humanely processing migrants while also enforcing civil and criminal laws. He said little beyond a prepared statement that highlighted the agency’s achievements in fiscal 2022.

John Sandweg, a former acting ICE director during the Obama administration, said in an interview that the millions of cases in an agency with 6,000 deportation officers is “far and away” the largest in the agency’s history and reflects Congress’ failure to update immigration laws.

Sandweg said immigration cases should be resolved more quickly, deporting those who do not merit legal residency and granting green cards to those who do. Instead, he said, cases are piling up for months or years.

“This reflects how incredibly overwhelmed the system is,” he said. “At current resource levels it is beyond broken.”

President Joe Biden has proposed legalizing the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States amid reports of labor shortages and falling birthrates in this country. Democrats and immigration analysts have long maintained that legalizing immigrants could lower ICE’s caseload and allow the government to quickly process newer cases.

Many Republican politicians, however, say stopping illegal border crossings must come first. Border officials made more than 2.3 million apprehensions last fiscal year and over 465,000 since the new fiscal year began in October.

The Biden administration also instituted new enforcement priorities that seek to limit immigration arrests to recent border crossers and immigrants with criminal histories, effectively sparing longtime immigrants from being deported just because they lack legal papers. Judges have halted that policy and it is pending a ruling from the Supreme Court.