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Immigration and Customs Enforcement doesn’t have the manpower or resources to track down all of the country’s undocumented immigrants and arrest them — especially not as quickly as the president wants.
Earlier this week, President Donald Trump tweeted that ICE would start arresting “millions” of undocumented immigrants over the next few weeks. “They will be removed as fast as they come in,” he wrote. For months, the president has focused his attention on the near-record numbers of asylum seekers arriving at the southern border. But his recent tweet suggested he wants ICE to return to his original goal of removing the “bad hombres” already in the U.S.
Let’s look at the numbers. ICE has about 6,000 deportation officers across the country. The Department of Homeland Security could deploy those officers to the 20 cities that house more than 60% of all undocumented immigrants in the country. But they wouldn’t make much of a dent in the estimated 10.7 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
“When people see news like this, they think ICE is going to be conducting house-to-house sweeps, which they don’t do,” Matt Cameron, a Massachusetts-based immigration lawyer, told VICE News. “ICE and Trump want people to believe that ICE is everywhere, behind every street corner, ready to go. But you can’t logistically deport millions of people before 2020.”
In an effort to walk back the president’s ambitions, immigration officials have said that, instead of targeting all undocumented immigrants, ICE would focus its efforts on the 1 million immigrants who’ve been issued final orders of removal. That means their immigration cases ended, and a judge ordered them deported.
But that’s still not a realistic goal. Some of those cases are currently being appealed. And during the entirety of fiscal year 2017, ICE only conducted 40,066 at-large arrests, or arrests in communities, instead of in prisons or jails.
ICE does partner with 80 local law enforcement agencies, which receive federal funds for detaining and transporting people suspected of being undocumented. But even with the extra reach provided by those relationships, ICE reported 143,470 total arrests in fiscal year 2017.
That's a little over 14% of the 1 million immigrants the Trump administration wants to target.
Regardless, a former DHS official told Politico’s Morning Shift that ICE plans to begin the arrests Sunday. According to the official, ICE officers in New York City are preparing for raids, but there could also be arrests in Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities.
Who’s really being targeted
Even before Trump’s unrealistic threat, Stephen Miller, the mastermind behind much of the administration’s aggressive immigration policy, had already urged the Department of Homeland Security to arrest an even smaller subset of the undocumented population: immigrants whose deportation orders were issued this year as part of an expedited adjudication strategy called the “rocket docket,” the Washington Post reported Tuesday.
Just over 13,000 families’ cases have been completed under the expedited program since last September, according to federal data. Of those, 12,784 families were ordered deported thus far, though it’s unclear how many of those families remain in the country. Still, that’s about 20% of the arrests that ICE, with the help of local enforcement, were able to enforce in 2017.
Only 62 families have been offered relief.
The overwhelming majority of those removal orders — 10,877, or 85% — were issued in absentia, or after a migrant failed to show up to a hearing. In a press call this week, acting ICE Director Mark Morgan said the “results” of the expedited docket had been “very disappointing” thus far.
“They’re going through a thorough, due process as part of the immigration process,” Morgan said of migrant families. “And they’re just refusing to show up.”
The expedited dockets are the administration’s way of alleviating the massive immigration court backlog, which is steadily approaching 900,000 cases. The asylum process typically takes years, but migrants whose cases are fast-tracked through the rocket docket have their cases decided in a matter of months.
"You can’t logistically deport millions of people before 2020.”
Trump isn’t the first president to urge the Justice Department to expedite asylum cases. The Obama administration created the priority docket program in 2014. More than 40,000 cases were closed via the expedited system between then and 2016, although pro-immigrant groups accused him of violating migrants’ due process rights.
The fast-paced nature of these hearings might be the reason so many migrants in the program aren’t going to court in the first place. According to immigration attorneys, many of the migrants on those expedited docket programs don’t have legal representation and are often confused about how the asylum process works.
“On a rocket docket, it's way more likely that you're going to get people not showing up for their hearings than it is on a regular docket,” Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst for the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, told VICE News.
But when migrant families do have representation and know they need to appear in court, almost 100% of them do, according to a report issued Wednesday by the Syracuse University-based Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).
Migrants also often think that passing their credible fear interviews — the first step in the asylum process, which determines whether a migrant has a “credible fear” of returning to their home country — means they’ve been granted asylum, according to Pierce.
“They don't realize that not only do they have to show up for court after that but they also have to file this huge paper application,” Pierce said.
Immigration officials have previously claimed that the high number of in-absentia removal orders issued under the so-called rocket docket policy proves migrants are claiming asylum at the border to gain entry into the U.S. and disappear.
If anything, though, the numbers show that he expedited docket program is part of the reason migrants fail to show up to court. The notices given to migrants about when to appear in court often don’t include the date or location of their court hearings, which sometimes aren’t confirmed until later.
TRAC’s report found more than 10,000 instances of family cases as of last month that had been entered into court records without important information like hearing dates or the charges against the family.
Correction 12:43 p.m. ET: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of arrests conducted by ICE in fiscal year 2017. The figure has been updated.
Cover image: In this Nov. 16, 2018, file photo, an immigrant who entered the United States illegally is checked before boarding a deportation flight to El Salvador by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)