The Trump administration’s anti-migrant policies are well known and multifaceted. Interestingly, the government’s heavy-handed approach is showing up in fewer detained families at ICE’s “family residential centers.” Data I obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests show that there were substantially fewer children held alongside their parents in September 2019 than at that point one or two years earlier.
From October 2016 to September 2019 (ending on September 14, 2019), the number of people held in ICE’s family immigration prisons peaked in May 2018 when, on an average day, the agency held 2,485 people. As I wrote in August 2019, when data in my possession ended in September 2018, the lowest average daily population occurred in April 2017 when ICE held together 384 members of family units.
Those outer reaches hold steady even when adding a year of more recent data. Now covering 36 months, the trend is unmistakable. Over the three years that I’ve tracked population counts at family immigration prisons, there have been steadily fewer people locked up. The data don’t reveal an explanation for this downward trend. My suspicion is that the dip might be attributed to administration policies that have made crossing the border into the United States more difficult. Clearly, this is a worrisome development. Choosing between stopping migrants at the border and throwing them behind barbed wire somewhere in the United States is poor public policy. Regrettably, it’s not unusual.
For most of this period, ICE used three facilities: South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas; Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas; and Berks County Family Shelter in Leesport, Pennsylvania. From May to September 2019 almost no one was held at Karnes.
Whether the agency used two or three facilities to detain families, at every point more people were held at the South Texas Family Residential Center, a private site operated by CoreCivic. The largest number of people held at that facility continues to be May 2018’s average daily population of 1,907. Still, the February 2019 average daily population of 1,725 isn’t substantially less. At the lower end of the population spectrum, April 2017’s average daily population of 229 remains the small monthly figure, but not too far from the 405 people held on an average day in September 2019 (my data go through September 14, 2019).
These data reflect incarceration in ICE’s family prisons only. They do not account for the much larger number of children detained without adult relatives in facilities operated on behalf of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. I am happy to share the documents containing these data with academics, advocates, or journalists.