Immigration agents in Minnesota and surrounding states arrested considerably more people during the Trump administration’s first couple of months than in early 2015 and 2016. But arrests remained in line with those earlier in Obama’s second term.

After months of speculation about how much the new government had picked up the pace of immigration arrests and deportations, new data from Immigration and Customs Enforcement offers an early glimpse. From the inauguration through mid-March, agents working out of ICE’s St. Paul office, which also covers the Dakotas, Iowa and Nebraska, arrested more than 620 immigrants — up roughly 80 percent over the same period last year.

Immigrant advocates highlighted the increased percentage of immigrants without criminal convictions: about a quarter of those arrested locally, compared with 10 percent in 2016. That increase reflects a return to a more traditional enforcement approach, ICE said.

“Being in the country illegally is a crime,” said Shawn Neudauer, a St. Paul-based spokesman for the agency. “We don’t target people who don’t have criminal records, but we can’t ignore them either.”

Deportations, however, did not increase nationally. Deporting most immigrants takes time, especially with an immigration court system facing staggering backlogs. In the Twin Cities, a shorthanded court with more than 5,000 cases in the pipeline will get some relief in June when a new immigration judge is slated to begin hearing cases.

ICE data also showed the local office made much more use of so-called detainers, requests that local jails keep inmates until ICE agents can take them. It wasn’t clear how many requests were honored by local authorities.

Shift in priorities

Immigration arrests in the early weeks of the Trump administration increased more dramatically in this region than nationwide. The 21,360 national arrests were up roughly 30 percent over the same period last year, and lower than early 2014.

Late that year, the Obama administration revised deportation priorities to focus on immigrants with felony or multiple misdemeanor convictions and recent border crossers. Afterward, arrests and deportations fell sharply.

Shortly after taking over, the Trump administration scrapped those guidelines. Officials have said that immigration authorities will continue to prioritize arresting and deporting those with criminal offenses — including immigrants charged but not yet convicted of a crime — but anyone in the country illegally is fair game.

That shift is showing in the early arrest data from ICE, which the agency originally compiled for the Washington Post. Of the 623 people agents with the St. Paul office arrested in five states from the inauguration through mid-March, 160 had no criminal records.

Minnesota arrest data alone is not available. In this state, five county sheriff’s offices contract with ICE to house immigration detainees. They generally do not report detainee numbers, citing a federal statute restricting the release of immigration inmate information.

Neudauer said local agents generally set out to arrest specific people with criminal convictions, immigrants who flouted an order to leave the country or those who have returned after deportation, a federal felony offense. But they will also question and possibly detain others they encounter in the process.

“The discretion has been returned to the officers working the cases on the ground,” he said, adding, “We went back to what we had been doing for decades.”

In the administration’s first couple of months, ICE in St. Paul issued 460 requests for local law enforcement to hold inmates, compared with 190 for the same period last year.

In its final years, the Obama administration had largely stopped issuing detainers to jurisdictions that did not honor them, which often cited legal challenges. Trump officials directed ICE offices to resume issuing those detainers, setting up a promised showdown with jurisdictions that do not cooperate with immigration authorities.

Deportations flat

Nationally, deportations were down about 1 percent. Since the start of the fiscal year in October, St. Paul’s ICE office deported more than 1,280 people, including about 72 percent with criminal convictions.

Although the Trump administration is exploring ways to expedite more deportations, most immigrants still get a day in immigration court, and backlogs can stretch cases out for years. Minnesota’s Bloomington Immigration Court, which has had a vacancy since one of its three judges retired in March 2016, is slated to return to full capacity in June.

In an April notice to local immigration lawyers, the Executive Office for Immigration Review announced the hiring of Judge Ryan Wood, who most recently served as a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota.

Local immigrant advocates said the ICE numbers support their concerns. “I am not at all surprised by the statistics,” said Michelle Rivero, a leader with the local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “This is what the Trump administration was selling, and now it’s becoming a reality.”

Advocates are closely watching the rise in the arrests of immigrants without criminal histories, arguing that ramped-up enforcement is sweeping up longtime residents with deep ties to their communities.

“It was a surprise how dramatically noncriminal arrests went up,” said Virgil Wiebe, a University of St. Thomas professor who coordinates  a campus effort to provide legal help to immigrants in detention.

Ruthie Hendrycks, a New Ulm resident who hosts a radio program focused on illegal immigration, said she is heartened by the increase in arrests, which affirms that Trump meant business when he campaigned for increased enforcement. She said it’s too soon to compare Trump’s record to arrests during Obama’s second term.

“We really need to give this administration time to get rolling,” said Hendrycks. “I do believe that under the Trump administration, arrests and deportations will escalate significantly.”

Advocates agree that roughly two months of enforcement data offer only a limited preview of the administration’s plans to ramp up arrests and deportations. Some expect more marked changes once authorities begin hiring 15,000 new border and immigration agents promised in one of Trump’s executive orders.

Already, said Wiebe, “This is a significant ramping back up over last year. There’s definitely a shift.”