President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in El Paso, Texas on Feb. 11, 2019. (AP/Susan Walsh)
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President Donald Trump tweeted in May that his administration was detaining “bad hombres,” a racially charged phrase he’d used also used during his campaign.

But over the course of a 27-month period coinciding mostly with Trump’s term in office, the number of immigrant detainees who’d been convicted of serious crimes dropped dramatically, according to a data analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.

Between September 2016 and Dec. 31, 2018, TRAC found, the number of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees rose from 38,810 to 47,486 individuals. That represented a 22 percent increase overall in people held in ICE detention, according to TRAC, which specializes in using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain immigration-related records.

During this same time period, however, the number of ICE detainees who’d been convicted of serious “level 1” felonies decreased by 17 percent — a drop of 1,243 people. (For a list of level 1 crimes, with outdated numbers of detainees, see here.)

TRAC also found during this period, by comparison, that the number of detainees “who had never been convicted of even a minor violation shot up 39 percent.”

The data analysis further found that the number of detainees who’d been convicted of minor violations, such as minor traffic violations, increased by 19 percent. Detainees include people taken into custody at the border, during interior enforcement operations and asylum seekers.

By the end of 2018, about 43 percent of detainees were from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and 20 percent were from Mexico.

ICE detainees, TRAC found, were scattered among 215 facilities nationwide but were increasingly concentrated in Texas, Georgia and Mississippi. The number of detainees held in California, Washington and New York declined, by contrast.  

“One detainee had been locked up by ICE in October 2007 — more than eleven and a half years ago — and was still detained at the end of December 2018,” said TRAC’s analysis. “While most had been recently detained, 10 percent of immigrants, according to ICE records, had been held for 6 months or more.”

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Susan Ferriss joined CPI in 2011 and directs its immigration project. As a Cox Newspapers Latin America...