WASHINGTON, Dec 5 (Reuters) - The U.S. government deported fewer illegal immigrants in 2017 than it did last year, even as it arrested far more people suspected of being in the United States illegally, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics released on Tuesday.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) removed approximately 226,000 people from the country in the 2017 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, down 6 percent from the previous year. The 2017 deportations were lower than at any time during the Obama administration, according to previous DHS statistics.
But ICE officers arrested far more suspected illegal immigrants in the months after President Donald Trump took office than in the same period last year. Between Jan. 20 and Sept. 30, the agency arrested nearly 111,000 people, a 42 percent increase over the prior year.
One reason for the decrease in deportations was that fewer people appeared to be trying to cross U.S. borders illegally. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported approximately 311,000 apprehensions in the 2017 fiscal year and 216,000 people trying to enter at official ports of entry despite being inadmissible. That was down 23.7 percent from the previous year.
"Overall removals are down because the border is under better control than it has been in 45 years," said Thomas Homan, the ICE deputy director, at a news conference.
Another reason for fewer deportations was that although immigration arrests are up, a burgeoning backlog in U.S. immigration courts has slowed the removal of immigrants who claim they will be harmed if they are deported to their home countries.
Trump made tough immigration policies a key part of his 2016 presidential campaign. Shortly after taking office, he expanded the categories of illegal immigrants the government targets for deportation, a change from the Obama administration's focus on those convicted of serious crimes.
But Homan disputed criticism from advocates and media reports that ICE officers are "conducting indiscriminate raids and sweeps, arresting people at churches, arresting people at hospitals."
"Every person we arrest we know exactly who we're going to arrest and where we're going to arrest them," he said.
Between Jan. 20 and Sept. 30, Homan said, 8 percent of the approximately 111,000 people arrested by ICE were "collateral arrests," or people who were not the original focus of the agency. He said most of those individuals were arrested in so-called "sanctuary cities," or jurisdictions that do not use local funds or resources to enforce federal immigration laws or that deny U.S. immigration officials access to local jails.
"We're going to arrest them either way," Homan said. "Chances are when we go to their homes, or place of business, we're going to find other illegal aliens that weren't even on our radar to begin with."
Trump administration officials said despite the lower numbers of people arrested at the border, Trump's proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is still needed.
"We're still arresting nearly 1,000 people a day coming across the border," said Ronald Vitiello, the CBP acting deputy commissioner. "We want that barrier to have a safer and more secure environment." (Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by David Gregorio)