The number of immigration cases referred to federal prosecutors for trial plunged dramatically during the first weeks of the national health emergency, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) of Syracuse University
The sharp decline in weekly cases brought by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) led a downward trend in prosecutions referred by the five major federal enforcement agencies as the nation began to grapple with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, TRAC concluded from an analysis of Department of Justice records.
During February and the first half of March, weekly referrals averaged 4,500 a week. They fell to 1,800 during the last week of March, the latest period for which data was available.
The other agencies included in the list were the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
But the two immigration enforcement agencies, which accounted for the over half of all federal criminal referrals during the first six months of 2020, showed the steepest overall decline.
CBP referrals, for example, dropped from a high of nearly 600 a week in January to less than 100 at the end of March, although there was a notable spike in the middle of the month.
ICE cases, which averaged about 100 during January and February, plummeted to a little over 40 by March 31.
There appeared to be no policy-connected explanation for the drops, except for the fact that by the end of March the spread of the coronavirus had forced the shutdown of many federal offices, and the closure of courts and other judicial offices.
“While the reported drop in illegal border crossing could help explain the drop in CBP’s referrals, it would not appear to account for the drop for ICE, which is responsible for enforcement in the interior of the country,” TRAC said.
“While ICE waited until March 18 to announce it would halt arrests during the pandemic, except for those necessary to ‘maintain public safety and national security,’ actual declines in ICE referrals appear to have begun in early March.
“In contrast, declines in criminal referrals from CPB waited until mid-March to appear.”
TRAC speculated that subsequent data would show further declines as the national shutdown intensified.
For example, while the drop in FBI referrals was less pronounced than other agencies, TRAC noted that FBI investigations could occupy many months before there was sufficient evidence for bringing a criminal case.
“Thus it would seem likely that the full impact of the pandemic on FBI enforcement activities may not be evident for some time,” TRAC concluded.
The TRAC report and supporting tables can be downloaded here.