In the midst of the pandemic, ICE has reduced its family immigration prison population to the lowest level since at least 2016. The agency’s three prisons where parents are confined with their children collectively held 369 people, on average, in May of this year. That’s a drop of over 2,100 people per day from the Trump administration’s peak in May 2018.
Data I’ve obtained using Freedom of Information Act requests shows a steady downward trajectory for the nation’s family immigration prisons. When President Trump entered the White House in January 2017, there were almost 1,800 people held in ICE’s family prisons. That population plummeted in the spring of 2017 when it hit 384 people in April 2017. But after increasing rapidly during the summer of 2017, the population has been steadily falling.
Before the pandemic took hold in the United States, there were 1,434 people held on an average day in February 2020. The average daily population increased slightly the following month when 1,588 people were held. Most of that increase was driven by a large jump in the population of the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas. The number of migrants held in that facility went from 244 in February to 629 in March.
Overall, though, the pattern would soon return to its years-long downward slope. In April the average daily population across ICE’s family prison system was 764. It bottomed out in May with 369, just below the previous low set in April 2017.
To be sure, lower population figures are not necessarily a sign of a positive development. I’ve long argued in favor of abolishing these and other immigration prison facilities. But, as I wrote in May, “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.”
We can expect the numbers to drop even more in the coming days because a federal court recently ordered ICE to release all of the kids from its facilities. According to records produced in that lawsuit, there were 124 children in the agency’s custody at the beginning of June. The order doesn’t apply to their parents, though ICE has the discretion to release families together.