ICE Detains Fewer Immigrants with Serious Criminal Convictions Under Trump Administration

Despite rising numbers of individuals detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), fewer and fewer individuals who have committed and been convicted of serious crimes are among them. Recently released case-by-case ICE records of those in ICE custody at the end of various months during the past four years document that the number of those who have been convicted of what ICE characterizes as the most serious, or Level 1 offenses[1], have been falling steadily since 2017. See Figure 1.

Number of Detainees with Criminal Convictions by ICE Priority Level
(Click for larger image)

This report focuses on the composition of detainees who do have criminal convictions, while TRAC's earlier report in this series focused on the growing number of detainees with no criminal convictions. The earlier report also found that the number of those with criminal convictions had remained remarkably steady, prompting TRAC to look deeper into this category of detainees.

While the total number of detainees with a criminal record has been fairly constant, TRAC found that the composition has been shifting. The number of individuals convicted of serious felonies fell from between 7,500 and 8,000 in 2017 to just above 6,000 in April of this year. Those convicted of serious felonies have been replaced by an increasing number of detainees who have committed at most misdemeanors - what ICE labels as Level 3 offenses - such as unlawful entry or traffic-related violations.

As shown in more detail in Table 1 below, ICE's data reveal that the fraction of detainees that ICE classifies as least serious, or Level 3 offenders, has climbed steadily from just over 6,000 (or 39 percent of the total detainees with criminal convictions in 2015) to nearly 9,500 (or 54 percent) in 2019. At the same time, detainees classified as serious Level 1 offenders declined from nearly 7,500 (or 47 percent) under the Obama administration to around 6,000 (or 34 percent) during the Trump administration.

The number of Level 2 detainees is remarkably unchanging across these four years, hovering somewhat above 2,000 detainees, or between 12 and 14 percent of all detainees with criminal convictions, on any given day.

These data do not include detainees with no criminal convictions, which now constitute a majority of detainees (see previous report).

Table 1: Details of ICE Detainee Data with Criminal Convictions
  Level 1 Level 2 Level 3  
Date Number Percent Number Percent Number Percent Total
March 31, 2015 7,401 47% 2,159 14% 6,221 39% 15,781
September 30, 2015 7,391 45% 2,157 13% 6,871 42% 16,419
March 31, 2016 7,281 45% 2,145 13% 6,782 42% 16,208
September 30, 2016 7,439 43% 2,134 12% 7,842 45% 17,415
October 31, 2016 7,475 42% 2,208 13% 7,945 45% 17,628
September 30, 2017 7,788 42% 2,340 13% 8,558 46% 18,686
October 31, 2017 8,075 42% 2,424 13% 8,765 45% 19,264
February 28, 2018 7,736 40% 2,483 13% 8,988 47% 19,207
March 31, 2018 7,632 40% 2,480 13% 8,987 47% 19,099
June 30, 2018 6,904 37% 2,253 12% 9,358 51% 18,515
November 30, 2018 6,364 36% 2,222 12% 9,336 52% 17,922
December 31, 2018 6,186 35% 2,237 13% 9,310 53% 17,733
April 30, 2019 6,048 34% 2,123 12% 9,447 54% 17,618

Top Three Convictions for Each of ICE's Offense Levels

The most common convictions under Level 1 over all data were assault (15,557 or 16.6%), burglary (6,788 or 7.24%), and drug trafficking (5,741 or 6.13%). Between October 2016 at the end of the Obama administration and April 2019, the latest detention data available under the Trump administration, the line-up of offenses remained similar with all three offense categories showing declining numbers. However, while the number of Level 1 detainees dropped by 19 percent, the number whose most serious conviction was burglary or drug trafficking dropped by roughly 30 percent. Assaults fell by 12 percent.

The most common convictions under Level 2 over all data were larceny (7,463 or 25.4%), illegal re- entry (4,193 or 14.3%), and weapons offenses (3,000 or 10.2%). Illegal re-entry experienced increasing numbers, while larceny saw declines. And by April 2019 the offense that was third most frequent had changed to convictions for resisting an officer.

The most common convictions under Level 3 over all data were driving under the influence or DUI (27,210 or 25.1%), illegal entry (23,783 or 21.9%), and traffic offenses (10,567 or 9.75%). However, by April 2019 illegal entry violations had jumped to the most frequent category. Between October 2016 and April 2019 Illegal entry violators more than doubled and accounted for much of the growth in Level 3 detainees. Simple traffic violators also jumped, while DUI offenders actually fell. Farther down the list those showing gains included detainees convicted of marijuana possession, public order crimes, and disorderly conduct.

Detainees Rarely Convicted of Election Fraud, Terrorism, or Gang Activity

Gang violence, terrorism, election fraud - these are just a few of the forms of criminal activity purportedly associated with undocumented immigrants. TRAC finds that these associations do not stand up to scrutiny. TRAC's analysis of official data about ICE detention shows that exceedingly few detainees carry these as the most serious conviction on their record. For instance, out of 13 comprehensive data profiles of ICE detainees, which includes over 500,000 detention records, only two detainees (0.004%) had an election-related conviction. Since 9/11 fears have been stoked about the association between immigration and terrorism. However, TRAC found that 68 individuals (0.0123%) had been convicted of a terrorism-related crime. Gang activity also looms large in public debate about undocumented immigration in particular. Again, the data suggest this relationship is negligible: only 82 detainees (0.0149%) have their most serious conviction that of gang activity.

The fact that few detainees has these convictions listed as their most serious charge suggests that the attention these themes receive may be disconnected from the reality of immigrants who are detained by ICE. View all criminal conviction data for ICE detainees using TRAC's interactive Detention App.

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 covering all individuals in detention on the final day of the month in question.

While TRAC requested data detailing every charge and conviction, ICE without explanation withheld all but the most serious recorded criminal conviction. TRAC also requested a large number of other factors about the characteristics of detained individuals as well as where and how they were taken into ICE custody - whether from arrests ICE made in the interior of the country, or from transfers from Customs and Border Protection arrests along the southern or northern border of this country. Unfortunately, ICE withheld all of these details. TRAC has also been seeking data that would allow it to track every detainee from the time the person enters ICE custody, is transferred by ICE to a different detention facility, and is released from ICE custody or deported. TRAC currently has three on-going lawsuits challenging ICE withholding and seeking the release of further information in agency records.

The currently available "snapshots" include detainees on only the last 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 held by the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Despite these many limitations, 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.


[1] Specific offenses were classified by TRAC based on "ICE business rules" that define the seriousness level for each of these offenses. For a more complete discussion of ICE's three-tiered priority scheme -- including a copy of these business rules - view the following report where TRAC also found that few immigration detainers targeted immigrants with serious criminal convictions:

TRAC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit data research center affiliated with the Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Whitman School of Management, both at Syracuse University. For more information, to subscribe, or to donate, contact or call 315-443-3563.