Immigration Crackdown Powered 25-Year High in Federal Arrests

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Graffiti on border fence near Nogales, Arizona. Photo by Jonathan McIntosh via flickr

Federal arrests reached a 25-year high in 2018, driven largely by the former administration’s immigration crackdown, according to data released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

The 38 percent increase effectively reversed a steady decline in federal arrests that began in 2013, when 188,164 individuals were picked up by federal agents.

Four years later, the arrest figures had dropped to 142,000; but in just one year, between 2017-2018, the number spiked by nearly 54,000 to 195,71 arrests, a figure not recorded since the early 1990s.

Over half of the recorded collars―56 percent―were for immigration offenses, followed far behind by violations of supervision rules and by drug offenses.


In fact, the number of drug offenses barely moved over the same period—staying at a little over 27,000, despite the growing toll taken by the narcotics trade. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents arrested fewer individuals for offenses related to crack cocaine and marijuana, though there was a slight uptick―10 percent―in arrests for opioids.

The figures reflect the step-up in immigration enforcement, including the so-called “zero-tolerance” policies, put into effect by the administration of former President Donald Trump.

More than 40 percent of federally charged defendants in 2018 were non-U.S. citizens, and they represented 19 percent of those in custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons,  BJS found. The largest contingent came from Mexico, followed by Central America and the Caribbean.

Although the latest available data from BJS is now over two years old, later indicators have made clear the extent of the border crackdown.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported in March that immigration violations accounted for 41 percent of the caseload processed through federal courts in 2020.

According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse, the incoming administration of President Joe Biden faced a backlog of nearly 1.3 million immigration cases―some two and half times the number registered when Trump took office in January 2017.

By year’s end, 372,354 individuals were under federal correctional control. The majority (60 percent) were held in prisons, and the remainder were under community supervision.

Pointedly, the number of individuals held in prison or supervision remained roughly the same as the previous year.

According to tables supplied with the BJS report, the five federal judicial districts along the U.S. border accounted for 65 percent of all federal arrests in Fiscal Year 2018. In FY 2017, the released figure was 58 percent.


Map courtesy BJS

Texas Southern District recorded the most arrests (45,740), followed by Arizona (28,934).

The BJS figures are collected from six federal justice agencies: the U.S. Marshals Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The full BJS report can be downloaded here.

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