Under President Trump, ICE has seared itself into the public consciousness for its sweeping attitude toward migrants. Perhaps nothing better illustrates the administration’s hardline approach than the growing size of its detention population. Official statistics I obtained through a FOIA request reveal that, on average, 42,188 people were detained by ICE during the 2018 fiscal year, breaking the government’s previous high set one year earlier.
Known as the average daily population (ADP), ICE’s daily running tally shifts remarkably from month to month. In June 2018, for example, the agency held 44,701 on average. By contrast, ICE locked up 39,192 people the previous October, a difference of over 5,500 people.
Because substantial fluctuations like this are not rare, I’m regularly wary of putting too much emphasis on news reports about ICE’s growing prison population. Some leave out parts of the fiscal year. Others focus on a single specific date (or two dates) or one month. Still other articles list targeted population numbers alongside actual population counts.
Instead, I prefer the yearly averages that wipe away temporary enforcement alterations and lend themselves well for year-after-year comparisons. Indeed, some of the messiness of ICE’s statistical compilations is exemplified in the fact that the reported ADP for the entire fiscal year is slightly different from the average of the 12 monthly ADPs. Averaging the monthly ADPs suggests that 42,184 people were held on an average day, whereas the ADP for the entire year, as listed in the documents I obtained through my FOIA request, indicates that 42,188 people were held.
With two years of data about daily ICE prison populations fully under the helm of President Trump, it’s clear that he is outpacing his predecessor, himself no slouch when it came to increasing the nation’s immigration prison population. The FY 2018 figure comes in at 7,812 people higher than Obama’s high-water mark, set in fiscal year 2016 when ICE locked up 34,376 people on average each day.
The data above, beginning on October 1, 2000, a month before the disputed election of President George W. Bush, reveals the remarkable growth of ICE’s detention network (plus that of its predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, because ICE wasn’t created until 2002 and wasn’t operational until 2003). From 2001 to 2018, ICE’s daily prisoner population doubled.
Needless to say, the United States has not witnessed a doubling of unauthorized migration or attempted unauthorized migration during this period. Nor have we experienced a similarly proportionate increase in the security threats that migrants pose. On the contrary, the 18-year period covered in these data highlight political shifts that have made immigration prisons a seemingly necessary response to migration control. As I write in Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants, my next book, “Whoever has been in office, for three decades the president, Cabinet officials, and top advisors have claimed we must imprison our way to a functional immigration-law system.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. We don’t imprison migrants to keep people inside the United States safe. After all, locking up children or veterans, instances of which I highlight in my book, doesn’t improve safety. Nor do we imprison migrants to promote the rule of law. Asylum law clearly allows anyone to request protection from persecution no matter how they arrived in the United States. Instead, we imprison migrants to push them and their families toward the margins of social life, where they are more easily subdued by fear and more readily exploited for political and financial profit.