Who are the people locked up in America's immigration jails? Ask President Donald Trump or his sycophants on Fox News and you'll hear horror stories: machete-wielding gang members, thugs, unrepentant rapists, and all sorts of hardened criminals. The invented invasion of these so-called bad hombres has been used to justify a wish list of callous immigration policies, including separating families and blocking people from applying for asylum.
The truth, of course, is far more depressing. A solid 64 percent of the roughly 49,000 immigrants in federal custody as of the last day of April had no criminal history, according to the latest snapshot of immigrants being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The data, obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, signals the continuance of a worrying trend under Trump: ICE is no longer prioritizing the detention of immigrants with prior convictions or immigrants who might pose a threat to society.
South Florida ICE jails are no exception. More than 85 percent of the 677 detainees at the Broward Transitional Center had no criminal history, according to TRAC. The same was true of 52 percent of the nearly 700 immigrants held at Southwest Miami-Dade's Krome Service Processing Center.
"This is incredibly troubling. Entire communities can be shattered by these arrests," says attorney Joe Lackey, who has represented immigrants at both Broward Transitional and Krome. "And if you ask me, the 85 percent figure for Broward Transitional is low."
Nestor Yglesias, an ICE spokesman, says TRAC's "reports often conflict with data" and provided New Times with ICE's own data on arrests and deportations.
"Any suggestion that the majority of persons arrested or removed by ICE are noncriminal is simply not an accurate claim," he says.
According to Yglesias, for each of the past three years, the majority of people arrested and deported by ICE had prior criminal convictions or pending criminal charges. Those with "pending" criminal charges are generally considered innocent until proven guilty in the U.S. legal system. And it's worth noting that when qualifying an immigrant as a convicted criminal, ICE considers even the tiniest of infractions: Jaywalking, driving without a license, possessing marijuana, and illegally reentering the country are all criminal offenses in the agency's eyes.
If you separate the minor offenses from more serious convictions such as assault and burglary, the number of "criminal" immigrants in ICE jails becomes even smaller. A TRAC analysis of the 44,000 immigrants in ICE custody in June 2018 found a full 80 percent of detainees either had no prior convictions or had committed a minor offense, such as a traffic violation.
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"These aren't real criminals we're talking about here," Lackey says. "Their crime is usually wanting to go to work to make some money to feed themselves and their families."
Whereas the Obama administration in its last two years attempted to prioritize rounding up convicted criminals, the defining characteristic of immigration enforcement under the Trump administration has been a reckless indiscretion about who ends up detained. The percentage of immigrants with no criminal history in ICE detention facilities rose from 50 percent in September 2017 to 64 percent in April 2019. In that same period, the total number of immigrants locked up also increased from 37,000 to nearly 50,000.
In May, ICE officials revealed they were detaining a record-breaking 52,000 immigrants — 7,000 more than the 45,000 beds Congress agreed to fund at the beginning of the year. To pay for the expanded detention, Trump officials moved funds to ICE from other programs, including the U.S. Coast Guard and FEMA.
"It's an agency out of control," says Maria Bilbao, a former undocumented worker who's now an organizer for the advocacy group United We Dream. "It reminds me of the military dictatorship in Argentina in the '70s and '80s, when people disappeared without warning. Here in Florida, you can go to a check-in with ICE and be detained and disappear from your job and the lives of your children."