When President Biden entered the White House, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency counted the smallest population within its prison network in many years. Three months into the administration’s tenure, signs are beginning to point towards a reversal.
Monthly population figures from ICE show that the agency’s confined population plummeted during the pandemic. Rather than being attributable to reform of ICE’s detention practices, the drop was likely caused by changes along the border and within local law enforcement agencies. During the pandemic, the federal government effectively closed the border to most people who are neither U.S. citizens nor lawful permanent residents. At least one important feature of the Trump administration’s border-closure arsenal remains in effect: Title 42 expulsions. So far, the Biden administration has not indicated a willingness to rescind that policy. Meanwhile, local police and sheriff’s departments throughout the country ratcheted back their willingness to arrest people due to public health considerations. After years in which the Trump administration had strengthened relationships with local law enforcement agencies to identify people to detain, these policy shifts at the local level likely affected ICE’s detention network.
As a result, the Trump era witnessed vast shifts in ICE’s detention population. ICE saw record high numbers seen in the summer of 2019. At that time, it was holding more than 50,000 migrants on an average day. Soon after the pandemic began in the spring of 2020, however, ICE’s average daily population began to fall. By January 2021, ICE held 15,104 people nationwide on an average day. The agency held fewer still in February. That month ICE reported an average daily population of 14,090. But in March the population count began to increase. Through April 10, the agency’s average daily population of 14,890 is approaching the January figure.
The administration’s continued pleas that migrants stay away from the United States suggest to me that ICE’s population will continue to grow. Some of the people arriving in the United States won’t enter ICE’s prison network—either because they are too young, they’re quickly ejected from the country, or because DHS decides that they are not suitable for confinement—but enough will that I expect the current trajectory to return ICE’s prison population to the Trump era low and continue past it.