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Biden Hasn't Changed ICE's Budget, But He Has Changed The Agency's Approach


Under the Trump administration, immigration advocates rallied around the call to abolish ICE. ICE stands for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the branch of Homeland Security responsible for detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants. Now, President Biden has not abolished ICE. In fact, his budget proposal today hardly changes funding for the agency. But the administration has been attempting to rein in and reorient the work of ICE.

With us now is Randy Capps, the director of U.S. research at the Migration Policy Institute. Welcome.

RANDY CAPPS: Hi, Ailsa. How are you? Thanks for having me on.

CHANG: Well, thanks for being with us. So can you just explain why you think the Biden administration is not cutting any funding to ICE, at least at this point?

CAPPS: I think that the Biden administration feels that there is still going to be a role for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Part of that's the higher security work that the HSI agents do with human trafficking and drug trafficking and international crime, part of that is the detention beds that they feel they still need for people that get apprehended at the border, and part of that is to detain or monitor people who are arrested for very serious crimes inside the United States.

CHANG: OK. Well, then, how much would you say ICE's goals or priorities have shifted under Biden?

CAPPS: They've shifted a lot. ICE has issued interim priorities, but they're very narrow. It's only people who are arrested and convicted for very serious crimes. They call them aggravated felonies. Otherwise, they have to be a national security threat or arrested having come inside the country since November of 2020. And that's resulted in about a 50% reduction in ICE arrests since Biden's taken office. Where they are now is at the lowest level that we have seen almost since ICE was created...

CHANG: Interesting.

CAPPS: ...Lower than at any time under Trump, any time under Obama and most of the latter years under Bush.

CHANG: That is fascinating. Well, if the Biden administration wanted to ramp down detentions even further, how could it do that - I mean, beyond decreasing funding, if it were to do that one day?

CAPPS: Well, I think what they're trying to do is focus on people that are clear security threats or public safety threats. And that's one of the issues. That can be more expensive. It's more work on the part of the officers to locate them. The other side of it is that ICE also assist with the border. When people get apprehended by the Border Patrol, if they are going to be held more than a few days, if they're adults, then they go into ICE custody. They're seeing the numbers go up and up at the border. When it comes to the adults, they've been near 20-year highs in the last couple of months. Secretary Mayorkas and the acting director, Johnson, have said that they're going to need ICE detention capacity to handle a possible increasing flow at the border in the coming months.

CHANG: Wow. Well, if the Biden administration wanted to find alternatives to more detentions, what could it do?

CAPPS: ICE could use different forms of monitoring and case management instead of detention to better track people. Right now, it's kind of all or nothing. It's detain or catch and release. They lose track of people because it takes often years for their asylum cases to go through the court system. So they've experimented with this case management approach before. It would involve giving lawyers, case managers and other resources to help keep asylum-seeking adults and families connected with the immigration system.

CHANG: Randy Capps directs U.S. research at the Migration Policy Institute. Thank you very much for joining us today.

CAPPS: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.