Photo: Hands holding a fence

Have Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers improved under President Biden?

Timothy S. Rich, Madelynn Einhorn and Josie Coyle

Timothy S. Rich, Madelynn Einhorn and Josie Coyle

Timothy is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University and
director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion
and electoral politics.

Madelynn is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University,
majoring in Political Science and Economics.

Josie is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University, with majors
in International Affairs and Chinese and a minor in history.

Policies regarding ICE detention centers have changed marginally since President Biden’s inauguration. Public opinion data shows a majority of Democrats believe ICE policy has improved, while a majority of Republicans think it has worsened. In contrast, public opinion data from Mexico shows the majority see the policy as about the same.
The US maintains over 200 detention centers through a combination of state and local jails, privatized facilities, and shelters. One of President Trump’s first actions on immigration were two executive orders, ending the Obama-era policy of prioritizing arrest only of those thought to be a national security risk, those with serious criminal convictions, and recent border crosses. With the goal of targeting all unauthorized immigrants, this resulted  in increases of arrests. President Biden, in contrast, announced guidelines in February similar to that of Obama, prioritizing arrests on grounds of national security and public safety, while in April ICE announced it would end the Trump administration’s policy of fining undocumented immigrants who did not leave the US.

While the Biden administration campaigned on a platform of immigration reform, emphasizing the need for ICE employee training and oversight, relatively few changes have taken place in the detention centers themselves. For example, although President Biden’s executive order on January 26 aimed at eliminating the use of privately operated criminal detention facilities, critics point to their continued use and question the efficacy of the order. The Department of Homeland Security announced in May their intent to close two ICE detention centers, but immigration advocates point out that roughly 25,000 unauthorized entrants remain in ICE detention, even as the number of detainees has declined by nearly half since 2019. The Biden administration has also stated that immigrants should seek out their needs in the US without fear of ICE, but never actually addresses sanctuary jurisdiction.

This could lead to a false sense of security under the Biden administration. Meanwhile increases in unaccompanied minors across the border in the spring of 2021 put additional pressure on the administration to curb undocumented immigration.

Criticism of the detention centers usually focuses on a variety of human rights abuses, from lack of medical care, lack of legal representation (1) and the separation of families, of which over 500 children separated from their parents were never found. Under Trump, US citizens had also been detained and in some cases deported (2).

Photo: Hands holding a fence
Photo @ Mitchel Lensink for Unsplash.

While public opinion polls on immigration are common, relatively few focus on ICE. However, Pew Research Center found in a 2020 public opinion poll that respondents had the most negative view of ICE out of any of the 10 federal agencies surveyed. In fact, 46% of Americans viewed ICE unfavorably compared to 45% of respondents who polled positively, the highest level of support for ICE in the past few years. Unsurprisingly, there was a clear divergence along partisan lines with 77% of Republicans answering positively, compared to 28% of Democrats. Additionally, other research finds that the Abolish ICE campaign, led by progressive Democrats, correlated with extremely negative views of ICE in 2018. Yet, while a plurality of Americans in 2018 viewed ICE pessimistically, only 25% actually advocated for abolishing ICE and 54% believed the government should maintain the agency.

Other polls in 2018 show similar findings when the public was queried about ICE and separation of families. When polls from CBS News, CNN, Quinnipiac, and IPSOS were compared, they found that, on average, 25% agreed with the policy and 64% opposed it. When broken down by party lines, only about 8% of Democrats supported it with 87% opposed. In contrast, Republicans were more divided, with about 49% in support and 35% opposing.

In addition, little attention is given to Mexican perceptions of ICE. Obviously, ICE detention centers affect more than just Mexican immigrants. However, immigration of both Mexican citizens and those fleeing Central America through Mexico likely make such detention centers a particular concern for Mexican citizens. Additionally, analysis of federal immigrant incarceration data has found that 75% of Mexicans faced with deportation were held in detention centers, compared to just 39% of potential deportees when excluding Mexican immigrants, suggesting ICE detention centers could be an incredibly personal and salient issue for Mexican citizens.

To assess whether people evaluate ICE detention centers differently under President Biden, we conducted original web surveys in the US and in Mexico via Qualtrics, using quota sampling, on June 24-26. We asked 625 respondents in both countries, “Do you believe that President Biden’s policies regarding ICE detention centers is better, about the same, or worse, compared to policies under President Trump?”

We expected that the public knowledge of ICE may be rather limited, so respondents likely relied more on partisan priming. Here we find a clear majority of Democrats think that policies are better (56.02%), whereas 66.06% of Republicans say policies are worse. We also find that women and older respondents were more likely to state that policies were worse and respondents with more education to state that policies were better, although the effects of partisanship remained stronger than any demographic variable. Likewise views on legal immigration had no effect on views once controlling for party and demographic factors.

Figure 1: President Biden’s policies regarding ICE detention centers
Figure 1: The breakdown of American respondents, by political party, who answered that President Biden’s policies regarding ICE detention centers were better, about the same, or worse, compared to former President Trump.

Moving to Mexico, we see across all party identifiers, clear majorities state the policies to be about the same under Biden as under Trump, with less than 10% of respondents in any group stating the policy was worse. Additional analysis finds no statistical difference on evaluations based on demographic factors. Likewise, controlling for whether the respondent personally knew someone who had been deported from the US did not appear to influence perceptions.

Figure 2: President Biden’s policies regarding ICE detention centers
Figure 2: The breakdown of Mexican respondents, by political party, who answered that President Biden’s policies regarding ICE detention centers were better, about the same, or worse, compared to former President Trump.

So what does this tell us? The power of the partisan lens in the US endures even when policies have changed marginally. Partisanship remains the most influential factor in predicting an American’s political values. Admittedly, a new policy introduced six months into a presidential term provides little time for change or for the public to understand and evaluate such changes. However, these results suggest the public may cling to partisan cues regardless of changes.  In addition, these survey results suggest the importance of capturing the views of those who are more familiar and possibly more affected by policies. ICE policy is likely to be much more personal for Mexicans, given that many, (51.52% in our survey) know someone who has been deported from the US. This is particularly important for cross-border issues such as immigration where a disconnect between perceptions on policy between domestic actors and those affected can undermine not only the policy’s intended purpose but fail to realize opportunities for improvement.


Timothy S. Rich, Madelynn Einhorn and Josie Coyle



  1.  Sayed, F. W., “Challenging Detention: Why Immigrant Detainees Receive Less Process Than “Enemy Combatants” And Why They Deserve More”, Columbia Law Review, 2011.
  2.  Stevens, J., “U.S. Government Unlawfully Detaining and Deporting U.S. Citizens as Aliens”, University of Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law, 2011.

Funding for these surveys was provided by the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky

Received: 19.07.21, Ready: 12.08.21. Editors: Dawn Chatty, Robert Ganley

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