Growth in ICE Detention Fueled by Immigrants with No Criminal Conviction
According to data recently obtained by TRAC, the growth in detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) over the past four years has been fueled by a steady increase in the number of detainees with no criminal history. On the last day of April 2019, ICE held about 50,000 people in detention centers nationwide. Nearly 32,000 - or 64% - of detainees had no criminal conviction on record. This is up from 10,000 - or just under 40% of the nationwide total - four years prior. Over the same period, the total number of detainees with criminal convictions remained consistently between a low of 16,000 in March 2015 to a high of just over 19,000 in late 2017 and early 2018.
Figure 1. Total Number of Detainees with and without Criminal Convictions Held by ICE at End of Month
(Click for larger image)
Figure 1 is based on TRAC's 14 "snapshots" of detention data, each one including case- by-case anonymized data of all individuals in ICE's custody on the last calendar day of the month. Figure 1 illustrates the remarkable consistency in the number of detainees with criminal convictions even as the total number of detainees fluctuates across a 4- year span of data. This suggests that the number of detainees with criminal convictions has its own inertia. Indeed, changes in presidential administration - as well as changes in ICE's own enforcement priorities that accompany each administration - appear to have little effect on the total number of detained immigrants with criminal convictions.
Rather, most of the action is related to variation in ICE's custody of detainees with no criminal convictions. Table 1 illustrates this change, as well. In March 2015, 61% of detainees had criminal convictions and 39% had no criminal conviction. But by April 2019, the proportion flipped completely: only 36% of detainees had criminal convictions while detainees without criminal convictions reached 64%. This is all the more significant as the total number of detainees grew substantially. ICE's increased focus on detainees with no criminal conviction is driving the expansion in the total number of detainees across the United States.
Table 1. Details of ICE Detainee Data by Criminal Conviction History
Why Detainees' Criminal History Matters
Because the relationship between criminality and immigration enforcement is of great interest to the public yet often confusing for non-specialists, TRAC provides the following clarifications about criminality and immigrant detention. First, the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed that immigrant detention is a civil form of custody which is distinct from incarceration in that it is not intended to be used as a criminal punishment. This means that the detainees included in this report are not in detention because they are serving out a sentence related to their conviction. Rather, when non-citizens are sentenced as part of a criminal conviction, they serve out criminal sentences within the federal, state, and local prisons. In contrast, ICE oversees much of the civil immigrant detention system. Second, for many of the detainees described here as "criminal", the criminal convictions on record represent crimes that do not neatly conform to popular stereotypes about criminality, including non-violent crimes, simple traffic citations, or immigration violations. Third, many detainees listed as "criminal" received a conviction years or even decades in the past and served out their sentences, probations, and satisfied other conditions associated with their convictions. Finally, although TRAC relies on the criminal/non-criminal distinction for this report, a distinction which is common within ICE's own reporting, TRAC does not in any way promote a value distinction between immigrants with criminal convictions and immigrants without criminal convictions. Using ICE definitions, in fact, most U.S. citizens have engaged in some form of "criminal activity" such as speeding, jay- walking, and other minor infractions of the law.
Despite these qualifications, criminal history remains an important aspect of immigrant detention and immigration control overall. ICE officers may use criminality to determine bond amounts, conditions of release and probation, and level of security while in detention. Immigration judges may also take criminal history into consideration when adjusting bond amounts and adjudicating various applications for deportation relief. Some criminal convictions even render non-citizens ineligible for certain visas and immigration benefits. The criminal histories of ICE detainees, therefore, have considerable consequences for the outcomes of immigration cases. Significant changes in the composition of detainees with criminal histories, as we see here, could be tied to specific national or regional ICE policies, and could signal widespread changes in how ICE is using its discretion over the detention of non- citizens.
Most Detainees with no Criminal History Held in Few Detention Centers
In addition to finding higher rates of detainees with no criminal convictions over time, TRAC also finds that the distribution of detainees without criminal convictions is institutionally uneven: the majority (85%) of ICE's nearly 32,000 detainees with no criminal history in April 2019 are held in just one-third of ICE's 214 detention centers. Table 2 below includes all detention centers where 50% or more of the detained population had no criminal conviction on record. Excluded from the table are detention centers with less than 10 detainees. The 70 detention centers in Table 2 held a combined 26,767 detainees with no criminal conviction.
Significant among the detention centers listed below are the South Texas Family Residential Facility and Karnes County Civil Detention Facility, both of which detain mothers with children who are seeking asylum in the United States. Many detention centers, such as Port Isabel SPC and El Paso SPC, are located near the U.S.-Mexico border. Yet many are not: Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi, Stewart Detention Facility in Georgia, and Krome North SPC in Florida are located far from ports of entry and serve as key nodes in ICE's nationwide detention network. Still others, such as Tacoma ICE Processing Center and CCA Northeastern Ohio Correctional are actually much closer to the U.S.'s northern border.
About this Data
The data in this report is derived from a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by TRAC for anonymized case-by-case data for the total number of individuals in detention on the final day of the month in question. The quality and comprehensiveness of the data provides unique insight into the composition of detainees and trends across time. However, the data contains several trade-offs. Among these, delays and non-responses by ICE regarding TRAC's FOIA requests result in historically inconsistent or "spotty" snapshots of immigrant detention. Further, each snapshot includes within its frame all detainees on one day of the month, not the total number of individuals who pass through detention in a month. This data only includes individuals in ICE custody, and does not include individuals detained near the border by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) nor minors detained by the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Despite these trade-offs, TRAC's data provides much-needed insight into the quantity and composition of immigrant detention in the U.S.
Explore Detention Data Using TRAC's Interactive Tool
The data for this report is available to the public through TRAC's recently-updated online detention tool, which allows users to explore data about ICE detainees for themselves using a number of factors for each detention facility including nationality, specific criminal conviction offense, and how long detainees have been in ICE custody.
Table 2: ICE Detention Centers with 50% or More Detainees with no Criminal Conviction
at the end of April 2019.
(Click headings to sort)
 While ICE continues to use "CCA" with this facility, the company known as CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) has since rebranded itself as CoreCivic.
 Only detention centers with at least 10 detainees were included in this table.