Majority of Detained Immigrants Have No Criminal Records, Study Finds

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U.S.-Mexican border. Photo by longIslandwinds via Flickr

The Trump administration has often claimed that its “zero tolerance” immigration policies are targeted at undocumented immigrants who represent potential threats to public safety.

But the majority of individuals now confined to detention centers have no criminal convictions, according to a data analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

The TRAC study in fact shows that the number of detainees with criminal records has “flipped” since 2015, with just 36 percent of them having at least one violation on their record—compared to 61 percent four years ago.

And that’s occurred despite the steep rise in the number of individuals detained at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities, TRAC said.

“ICE’s increased focus on detainees with no criminal conviction is driving the expansion in the total number of detainees across the United States,” TRAC said, based on a review of detention data over the past four years.

As of April 2019, about 50,000 people were held in U.S. detention centers around the nation, and roughly 64 percent had no criminal convictions—a proportion that has stayed roughly the same since the Obama administration.

Most of the detainees with no criminal history are held in just 70 of ICE’s detention centers—less than one third of the total 214 facilities nationwide—including locations where mothers and children seeking asylum are housed. Several of those locations, such as the South Texas Family Residential Facility, have been impacted by Trump administration policies that separated the children and held them in conditions that advocates charge exposed them to abuse and unsanitary facilities.

The statistics raise anew questions about the underlying rationale for the administration’s policies.

But TRAC also noted that the label of “criminal convictions” is misleading since it can cover many minor, nonviolent offenses like traffic citations.

“Most American citizens have engaged in some form of ‘criminal activity’ such as speeding, jaywalking and other minor infractions of the law,” TRAC pointed out.

Studies have also shown that recent immigrants, including the undocumented, are responsible for fewer criminal activities than U.S. citizens.

Under immigration law and practice, immigrant detention is meant to be considered as a civil form of custody, as distinct from incarceration. Non-citizens who are convicted of criminal acts serve out their sentences in federal, state or local prisons.

To access the full TRAC report, please click here.