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VERIFY: ICE detentions returning to pre-pandemic levels under Biden Administration

2020 saw a dramatic drop in ICE detentions for several reasons. The increase under Biden marks a return of pre-pandemic immigration enforcement.

WASHINGTON — A tweet with tens of thousands of likes and retweets shows a headline which claims the number of immigrants detained by ICE has increased 70% under President Joe Biden. The headline was screenshotted from an opinion piece on Truthout.org, and links back to a CBS News article with no attribution for that 70% figure. So let's verify.

THE QUESTION

Have ICE detentions increased by 70% since the start of the Biden Administration?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

ICE detentions have increased around 70%. From January 2021 to August, ICE data shows a 66% increase, while TRAC data shows a 77% increase. But just a number can't tell the whole story—let's dive into the context.

WHAT WE FOUND

The amount of immigrants and undocumented people detained by ICE has increased dramatically since the start of President Joe Biden's administration in January 2021. ICE and TRAC data shows a 20-year low in detention population in February and March of 2021 at around 14,000. At this summer's peak in August, there were about 27,000 people detained by ICE. 

But Ruth Wasem told us it's difficult to come to certain conclusions when looking at immigration trends over a small amount of time, like the relatively short amount of time President Biden has been in office.

"Immigration forces are long term forces," she explained. "Even policy tools—which can have some quick effects—a lot of the effects of policy change, we don't see them change quickly. So, I'm always reluctant to think that a sudden change is worth getting too excited about." 

Denise Gilman explained the steep increases we've seen this year is following the trend set forth by past administrations.

"Immigration detention in the United States has been expanding dramatically since about 1996. I mean, we used to be talking about a couple thousand people in detention throughout an entire year," Gilman said. "What the current detention numbers show is that it's kind of back to the same old Trump and earlier administration policies, focusing on detention."

Data published in a September 2021 report from the Migration Policy Institute illustrates the massive changes that immigration detention populations went through since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Detentions had hit a peak in 2019 under President Donald Trump at just over 50,000.

Gilman explained that there were a few factors driving down detention rates in 2020 that appear to have changed since: less people were venturing to the United States, immigration courts restricted high capacity detention to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and many asylum seekers were blocked from entering at all under certain Trump Administration rules. 

"Since the Biden government came into the administration, there has been some movement in terms of allowing asylum seekers through the border, and then placement into detention, even though they could just be released to families," Gilman said "And, there just seems to be a sense that detention is proper in immigration cases, despite the COVID concerns that continue very much to be prevalent."

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