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How Trump Is Taking a Huge Risk With Public Safety

February 27, 2017

At first glance, the recently issued Department of Homeland Security (DHS) directive on immigration enforcement could be construed as a win for public safety and security. The policy expands the scope of removal operations and limits the ability of agencies to exempt certain classes of immigrants from prosecution. By widening its dragnet, the Trump administration appears to project an image of strength and resolve.

Yet the opportunity cost of this new directive is high. By broadening the scope of enforcement, the administration will divert resources away from the pursuit of high-risk criminals who actually threaten American communities. In an effort to back campaign rhetoric, the new policy actually makes America less safe.

The latest enforcement guidance was not produced in a vacuum. It replaces a 2014 DHS policy memo, which prioritized enforcement actions according to a detailed list of offenses arranged in three categories. Priority one actions were reserved for the so-called worst of the worst—defined as individuals that presented threats to national security, border security, and public safety. Priority two actions were for individuals with misdemeanors or multiple immigration infractions. Priority three actions fell to those with only an order of removal—people who entered or remained in the country illegally, but committed no other crimes.

The new guidance rescinds this prioritized approach to immigration enforcement. Given the DHS’s finite resources, this new policy will have the effect of decreasing law enforcement capacity to pursue the “the worst of the worst.”

Statistics from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) demonstrate that a tiered approach to enforcement leads to tangible results in the field. By 2016, 92% of ICE removals were of priority one criminals—a significant increase from years past. By emphasizing quantity over quality in enforcement actions, the Trump administration is taking a big risk. Some may argue that by arresting and deporting more unauthorized migrants, the worst criminals will naturally be swept up in the wave. This is a significant assumption, however, and one that depends greatly on the amount of resources devoted to the enforcement effort.

ICE is currently operating at or near its operational capacity—each officer can only round up and deport so many people in a day. Increasing the quantity of apprehensions and removals will require more boots on the ground. Oddly enough, the new guidance largely skirts the critical issue of funding. ICE is ordered to hire 10,000 more officers, “subject to available resources, and to take enforcement actions consistent with available resources.” Yet Congress has shown no movement toward new budget authority for the DHS, nor has the president requested a surge of funding to staff his enforcement effort. New policy announcements are often accompanied by new resource requests—something the DHS has not shown an inclination to do in this case.

Without new money to hire officers, any change to immigration enforcement priorities quickly becomes a zero-sum game. Even if the administration asks for new budget authority and receives it, the lag time for getting 10,000 officers on board will be significant. With a hiring process that can take a year or more (with additional time for training and deploying in the field), ICE will be waiting a long time for the theory of this new guidance to become reality.


In the absence of new ICE officers, the administration plans to use a revived Secure Communities program as a “force multiplier.” Administered by ICE, Secure Communities was an immigration enforcement program focused on developing partnerships between federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to create an integrated domestic deportation capacity. This will place new strains on our immigration enforcement system through a flood of immigration cases brought in through state and local authorities. ICE officers who should be out finding and deporting hardened criminal offenders will be pulled away to process minor administrative cases—people who were rightfully deemed low priorities under the previous system. The impact of expanded enforcement efforts also extends into the courts, where more administrative law judges and lawyers will be needed to handle the increased caseload.

The rhetoric of expanded enforcement will soon collide with the operational reality of constrained resources—it is only a matter of time. In this context, the metrics used to judge success or failure will be important. Trump will likely tout any increase in apprehensions and removals. Yet in the absence of a prioritized, targeted enforcement effort, how many violators are being apprehended and removed will be less important than which violators are being apprehended and removed. We must ensure that known criminals who compromise the security and safety of our communities remain the enforcement priority.

The issue of immigration enforcement is a massive and complex challenge that cannot be solved with a myopic approach. Clearly we must protect the integrity of our borders and address the disposition of those here illegally. That means enforcing the law in all cases, even for low-tier administrative violations. Yet security, not political rhetoric, should be the priority that guides implementation on the ground. Attractive though it may seem, we cannot be fooled into thinking that the quantity of deportations equates to an effective immigration policy. It is the quality of our enforcement efforts that makes America safer, and that is where our focus should rightfully be.

Rick “Ozzie” Nelson is a senior associate at the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). A former naval officer, he served on the National Security Council staff and was a founding member of the National Counterterrorism Center. Ben Ball is a former senior policy advisor for the Department of Homeland Security and also served as a foreign service officer. He now works in private industry.