After 10 months of ramped-up immigration enforcement under President Trump and a sharp surge of arrests across the country, the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement promised Tuesday that the agency will become even more aggressive next year.
Thomas Homan, acting director of ICE, said he wants to dramatically increase targeting of companies that hire immigrants who entered the country illegally, as well as launch community raids that snare such people in so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with his agency.
Homan dismissed complaints from immigration advocates about the rollback of Obama administration policies that had led to a sharp drop in arrests inside the country. Immigrants who received final deportation orders can expect to become targets, he said, even if they've lived in the United States for years or have children who are U.S. citizens.
"Those days are over," Homan told reporters about the administration's enforcement record. "We're going to execute those final [deportation] orders, because if we don't, there's no integrity in the system."
Since Trump took office, after a campaign largely built around a promise to crack down on illegal immigration, the effect of the tougher approach is now clear in enforcement statistics.
The number of people arrested at the southwest border in fiscal year 2017, which ended Sept. 30, dropped by about 25% compared with the previous year to 310,531, the lowest since 1971. The reduction mostly tracks a trend in recent years of fewer migrants coming from Mexico.
The number of border arrests plummeted as soon as Trump took office. They have begun to rise again in recent months as more minors and families have resumed the trek from Central American countries.
The drop in apprehensions at the border shows "the effectiveness of the Trump presidency," White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters. But, she added, despite the decline in illegal crossings, "the need for the border wall and border security … still stands."
Homan and Ronald Vitiello, acting chief of the Border Patrol, said that the sharp drop in illegal border crossings is no reason to pull back on Trump's promise to build a wall across hundreds of miles of the southwest border.
"We're still arresting nearly 1,000 people a day on the border, mostly the southwest border," Vitiello said.
Immigration arrests in the country's interior have surged 40% this year — the result, Homan said, of Trump's hard-nosed approach. Under President Obama, interior arrests steadily dropped as the administration implemented policies under which people who did not commit other crimes were not targeted for deportation.
In the last fiscal year, ICE arrested 105,736 people in the U.S. illegally who also had criminal convictions, a 12% increase from the previous year. But arrests of people with no criminal convictions more than doubled in the past year, to more than 37,000.
"It's easy, when you go from zero to 100, you're going to see an increase," Homan said. "This president, like him or love him, is doing the right thing."
About 8% of the total are so-called collateral arrests, of immigrants caught when ICE agents came looking for someone else.
Homan was unapologetic and said most of those cases came in so-called sanctuary cities, when agents went looking for people who had been released from jails in spite of ICE requests.
"There's definitely retaliation" for the sanctuary policies, said Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos, an immigration rights group in Philadelphia. That city's policy of not cooperating with ICE has repeatedly drawn attacks from the Trump administration.
"Raids have become more aggressive," she said. "They're going into people's houses fingerprinting everyone, and pretty much taking everybody out of the house." Agents have told the immigrants that the raids were connected to the city's sanctuary policies, she said.
Next year, Homan said he wants a fourfold increase in workplace enforcement operations.
An example, he said, was a recent paperwork audit at a Chicago bakery that supplied buns for McDonald's that resulted in the firing of 800 workers. The agency will consider enforcement against employers as well as workers, he said.
"We've got to get rid of these magnets for immigration," he said.
The stepped-up arrests still are far less draconian than Trump's promise last year — a massive, immediate effort to target all of the estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally.
Overall, deportations were down 6% this year, from 240,255 to 226,119. One reason for that, officials said, was the steep drop in border arrests.
Trump also promised to hire an additional 5,000 Border Patrol agents to bolster border security.
But the long-troubled Border Patrol has struggled to improve a cumbersome hiring process and to keep up with attrition: The current number of agents, 19,437, is about 400 fewer than the agency had last year.
With illegal border crossings down, spending money on new agents and expensive border barriers makes no sense, said one advocacy organization.
"These numbers show that Border Patrol agents are stopping, on average, one or two people per month," said Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight for the Washington Office on Latin America. "Where's the urgent need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on further expanding this agency?"
The Border Patrol said assaults on its officers jumped by 40% to 847 during the year. Some of the increase is explained by new reporting procedures, but the agency says the border has become more violent as criminal cartels take an ever-larger role in smuggling people across.
At the same time, stricter policies on use of force and greater accountability has helped reduce shootings by agents. Officials reported 17 shootings by Border Patrol officers last year, down 69% from the peak of 55 in 2012. Use of Tasers and other "less-lethal" tactics has increased.
3:10 p.m.: This article was updated with details from the ICE report and reaction from immigration advocates.