Investigators with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement opened about four times the number of workplace investigations in the year ended Sept. 30 compared with the close of the Obama administration, while starting fewer probes into gangs, weapons and financial crimes, according to new figures the agency provided to The Wall Street Journal.

ICE’s focus on workplace enforcement—targeting both immigrants working illegally and their employers—has intensified in the past two years. Homeland Security Investigations, the ICE arm that carries out criminal investigations, opened 6,812 new workplace cases in the 2019 fiscal year, up from 1,701 during fiscal 2016. The agency made 2,048 administrative arrests, primarily of illegal immigrants, up roughly 500 from the year before.

ICE carried out one of its most high-profile investigations in August, raiding several food-processing plants in Mississippi and detaining about 680 immigrants working in the country illegally. President Trump has focused a large majority of his immigration reforms on preventing new aliens from crossing the border illegally and discouraging those who do cross illegally from seeking unlawful work, which only further bloats the labor market affecting low-skilled American workers and minority citizens the hardest.

The emphasis on immigration enforcement is new for Homeland Security Investigations, a law enforcement agency under ICE with a broad mandate to go after international gangs, weapons, drug smuggling, and human trafficking. Agents work on cases from bitcoin seizure to art theft.“With ICE, people don’t often make it past the ‘I,’” said Alysa Erichs, the acting executive associate director for Homeland Security Investigations. “We are so much more than immigration.”

Agency officials said that, in recent years, some state and local law-enforcement agencies have expressed unwillingness to work with its criminal investigators, even on cases unrelated to immigration, because they oppose some of ICE’s deportation practices. A separate arm of ICE known as Enforcement and Removal Operations handles immigrant detention and deportation.

The sharper focus on immigration hasn’t brought the agency’s other work to a halt. Overall, it made 37,547 criminal arrests during fiscal 2019, a 10% increase from the prior year. That total—which typically doesn’t count immigrants arrested for deportation—included increases in human-trafficking and drug-related crimes, as well as crimes tied to immigration, such as employer violations.

Still, the number of new cases the agency opens is a good indicator of its current priorities, as arrests and seizures can sometimes come months or years after an investigation has been opened, former U.S. immigration officials said. In addition to the increase in new workplace-enforcement cases, the agency has opened more than double the number of border-related cases since 2016 and 24% more identity and benefit-fraud cases.

Matthew Allen, Ms. Erichs’ acting deputy, said the agency is focusing on opening fewer but bigger cases, aiming to make more arrests with each investigation. Mr. Allen said the shift in case openings toward more immigration enforcement indicates the administration’s focus. “In the end, the numbers are the numbers,” he said. “If you look at any police agency, they end up reflecting the priority of their administration. We’re no different.

While the administration has stepped up workplace enforcement, the number of employers and managers arrested for hiring illegal immigrants has fallen each year since the final year of the Obama administration. The agency made 40 employer arrests in 2019, down from 72 in 2018. Mr. Allen said that, after recent successful workplace raids, the agency hopes to arrest many more employers. “It’s much more difficult and longer-term to get employers and managers in the company charged,” he said. Federal law requires that, to convict an employer for hiring illegal immigrants, investigators must be able to prove the employer knew about the workers’ legal status.

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Updated: Thu, Dec 19th 2019 @ 11:45am EST