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Why are the Feds Arresting More Non-Citizens?

Most of the increase comes from immigration charges, not violent crime or drugs, a new report finds.

The Trump administration has branded immigrants as criminals from the outset. During his inaugural speech the president conjured images of a country in decline at the hands of migrants flooding the borders, leaving a trail of violence in their wake.

In new data published by the Department of Justice on Thursday, the agency reports that 64 percent of all federal arrests in fiscal year 2018 were of non-U.S. citizens, a sharp increase from past years. On its face, this would appear to be another potential talking point for a White House that has largely demonized immigrants. But a further review shows that most of those additional arrests were for immigration-related charges, not violent crimes, fraud, or drug trafficking.

Federal Arrests Since 2008

The number of non-citizens arrested by the federal government rose by 50,000 in the last fiscal year. Most of the spike was comprised of arrests for immigration charges. For other types of crimes, including drugs and violence, the number of arrests for both citizens and non-citizens changed slightly.

All Arrests
Immigration-related Arrests
Other Arrests

The spike in arrests from fiscal year 2017 to 2018 coincides with “zero tolerance,” a Justice Department policy decision aimed at ramping up criminal prosecution of people caught entering the country illegally. It is the same policy that resulted in the separation of hundreds of children from their families and has resulted in more prosecutions for illegal re-entry, which is a federal felony.

The Trump administration has repeatedly cited “criminal aliens” as a top priority. In fact, one of Trump’s first moves as president was to launch the Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement Office to “acknowledge and serve the needs of crime victims and their families who have been affected by crimes committed by individuals with a nexus to immigration.”

But Thursday’s report, which includes the most recent data on arrests by multiple federal agencies and the courts, shows that the majority of arrests for violent or property crimes involved U.S. citizens and not foreign nationals. While these numbers do not include arrests made by state and local law enforcement agencies, they provide a lens into the priorities of federal law enforcement agencies.

Using the most recent numbers published in the report, we took a closer look at the arrests for violent and property crimes broken down by citizenship. In every category except immigration, U.S. citizens were arrested more often than non-U.S. citizens. For instance, for every non-U.S. citizen arrested for violent crime, 10 U.S. citizens were arrested. For every non-U.S. citizen arrested for drug charges, 3 U.S. citizens were arrested.

Arrests for Different Types of Crimes

Between October 2017 and September 2018, immigration was the only category of federal offense in which non-citizens made up the majority of those arrested.


There is a growing and consistent body of research that counters the narrative about immigrants and crime that the Trump administration has used to justify ramping up enforcement along the border, to separate children from their families, and most recently, to conduct an immigration raid that swept up about 680 unauthorized immigrants in Canton, Mississippi.

Previous reporting by The Marshall Project has shown that there is no clear connection between immigration and crime. An analysis of immigration to metro areas from 1980 to 2016, for example, showed no significant increase in violent or property crimes as the immigrant population grew. And in some cases, the presence of immigrants coincided with a decrease in crime.

Andrew Rodriguez Calderón Twitter Email Andrew is a data project lead at The Marshall Project. He uses collaborative design, community engagement and artificial intelligence to design and develop stories and products driven by people most affected by the issues that we cover.

Weihua Li Twitter Email is a data reporter at The Marshall Project. She uses data analysis and visualization to tell stories about the criminal justice system. She studied journalism and comparative politics at Boston University and graduated from Columbia University with a master's degree in data journalism.