Arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents dropped significantly in the first quarter of fiscal 2019, but a larger proportion of those arrested were unauthorized immigrants with no criminal record.
Between October and December, ICE agents arrested 34,546 people, 12 percent fewer than the 39,328 arrests in the same period of fiscal 2018.
But 36 percent of those arrested during the first quarter of fiscal 2019, or 12,271, were made up of those who are not convicted criminals, compared to 33 percent, or 13,010, in the same period of fiscal 2018.
The overall reduction in arrests is due to the reassignment of resources to border enforcement, according to Nathalie Asher, the acting executive associate director of Enforcement and Removal Operations, the branch of ICE in charge of detaining and deporting people who've violated immigration law.
"I have a finite number of officers, we're just over 6,000 strong as it related to deportation officers, and the bandwidth is getting stretched," Asher told reporters on a call Thursday.
Asher added that ICE is shifting resources to other agencies within the Department of Homeland Security, like Customs and Border Protection (CBP), to cope with increased immigrant apprehensions at the southern border.
"We are having to work lockstep with CBP, redirecting countless numbers of deportation officers to address what's occurring at the border at this time," said Asher.
During the period covered by the newly released ICE statistics, border apprehensions and turn-aways were fairly static, hovering at around 60,000 a month for October, November and December.
But those three months were also the first three in history in which apprehended families outnumbered single adults.
Migration patterns from Mexico and Central America have changed significantly over the past few years, with fewer single adults crossing the border.
These adults have instead been replaced by large groups of migrant families crossing the border and turning themselves in to authorities to apply for asylum.
To apply for asylum, any foreign national either within the United States or at a port of entry on the border must claim what's known as "credible fear" of returning to their home country.
Prospective asylum-seekers go through a relatively long process to determine whether they'll remain the United States or be removed, but the increased border apprehensions of people crossing and not claiming asylum have also led to an uptick in removals.
Enforcement and Removal Operations is the only agency authorized to deport or otherwise forcibly repatriate foreign nationals, regardless of the arresting agency.
Removals emanating from ICE arrests were down to 22,169 in the first quarter of fiscal 2019, from 23,932 in the same period of fiscal 2018.
However, removals emanating from CBP arrests shot up to 41,210 in first quarter of fiscal 2019 from 36,272 in fiscal 2018.
"You'll have individuals who are from Honduras or Guatemala, let's say, and at the time of encounter with CBP or Border Patrol, they do not claim credible fear," explained Asher.
"Since there has been an influx in those nationalities as it relates to CBP apprehensions, then it stands to reason that those individuals would then come to ICE for detention and removal proceedings, that explains why that number is up," she added.
The influx of families has also overwhelmed ICE's detention system, forcing the agency to release thousands of detainees, sometimes with GPS trackers, sometimes with a simple summons to appear in court.
Asher said cooperation with church groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has been critical in helping find shelter for families that ICE can't hold.
"We're trying to harness the problem and get these individuals to where they need to go, really on their own volition. The number is so great, the NGOs have been great in trying to expand what they historically have been able to provide," she said.