Federal arrests of non-US citizens have tripled in past 20 years: report

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A new federal report shows that arrests of non-U.S. citizens have more than tripled over the last two decades, mostly driven by increases in immigration enforcement.

The report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) shows that 64 percent of all federal arrests last year were of non-U.S. citizens, up from 37 percent in 1998.

Federal arrests of foreign nationals more than tripled in that period, up 234 percent, while arrests of U.S. citizens were up 10 percent.

But the report’s findings show those increases are attributable mostly to enhanced immigration enforcement in the later years of President George W. Bush’s administration, throughout the Obama administration and in 2018 under President Trump.{mosads}

Among its key findings, the report reads, “In 2018, 85% of federal arrests of non-U.S. citizens were for immigration offenses, and another 5% of arrests were immigration-related.”

“The Trump administration is determined to enforce immigration laws more thoroughly, which means more prosecutions and arrests of non-citizens for committing immigration offenses,” said Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration researcher at the Cato Institute.

“These numbers reflect administrative choices to allocate law enforcement and prosecutorial resources more than a surge in lawbreaking behavior,” Nowrasteh added.

The BJS report shows federal immigration arrests — regardless of nationality — have skyrocketed in the past 20 years, from 20,942 in 1998 to 108,667 last year. 

Federal arrests for non-immigration offenses have remained relatively stable, with 87,086 arrests in 2018, compared to 82,863 in 1998 and a high of 98,505 in 2005.

Federal immigration arrests remained under 30,000 per year from 1998 to 2003, then grew consistently every year, from 39,135 in 2004 to 78,033 four years later.

That growth coincides with Bush’s second term, the ultimately failed push for bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform, and passage of the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which allowed for construction of barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as increased funding for immigration enforcement.

The growth in arrests up to 2007 also parallels the years in which the undocumented population grew, mostly driven by emigration from Mexico.

The number of undocumented immigrants in the United States peaked at 12.2 million in 2007, and by 2016 had decreased to about 10.7 million, according to the Pew Research Center.

Immigration arrests throughout the Obama administration remained high but stable, with a spike to 96,374 in 2013 and a dip to 71,119 in 2015 and 68,315 in 2016.

In 2017, Trump’s first year in office, undocumented immigration fell sharply, resulting in only 58,031 federal immigration arrests, but arrests ballooned in 2018 to 108,667 as his administration ratcheted up plans to tackle illegal migration.

According to the BJS report, that number was significantly affected by the proportion of Border Patrol detentions that resulted in federal arrests.

“There were 21 federal criminal immigration arrests per 100 apprehensions by the U.S. border patrol in the southwest border patrol sectors in 2018, up from 12 per 100 in 2017,” read the report’s findings.

And the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which mandated prosecution of first-time illegal entry, played a role in those ballooning numbers.

While the number of suspects in federal immigration cases for illegal reentry, misuse of visas and alien smuggling stayed relatively stable between the final years of the Obama administration and the first two of the Trump administration, first-time illegal entry cases soared.

In 2018, 61,581 people were suspects of first-time illegal entry, compared to 27,657 in 2017 and 35,546 in 2016. 

The Obama administration, which also prioritized immigration enforcement, identified 51,378 such suspects in 2013, its peak year.

The Department of Justice touted the report in a press release this week from the Office of Justice Programs, focusing on the growth in federal arrests of foreign nationals.

“While non-U.S. citizens make up 7% of the U.S. population (per the U.S. Census Bureau for 2017), they accounted for 15% of all federal arrests and 15% of prosecutions in U.S. district court for non-immigration crimes in 2018. Non-U.S. citizens accounted for 24% of all federal drug arrests and 25% of all federal property arrests, including 28% of all federal fraud arrests,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

Nowrasteh pushed back at the data highlighted in the announcement.

“It’s a press release with the most dramatic statistics displayed without context, nuance, or explanation — not a serious data analysis. The federal government enforces immigration laws so it makes sense that most arrests are of non-citizens,” said Nowrasteh.

The Trump administration has pushed forward several initiatives to combat immigrant crime, although statistics show immigrants — both documented and undocumented — are less likely to commit crime than the general population.

In an analysis of American Community Survey information, Nowrasteh found that undocumented immigrants are about half as likely to be incarcerated than the general population, and documented immigrants about half as likely to be incarcerated as undocumented immigrants.

The BJS report shows that foreign nationals accounted for 105,748 of the 108,667 federal immigration-related arrests in 2018, but only for 19,279 of the 87,086 non-immigration related arrests.

“Historically, non-citizens began to make up a majority of arrests for crimes when the government decided to enforce the handful of immigration crimes against as many illegal immigrants as possible during the last years of the Bush administration,” said Nowrasteh.

“It’s worth noting that it is virtually impossible for U.S. citizens to actually commit most of those crimes,” he added.

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