By Michael Cipriano
Statistics are often valuable tools for measuring performance and drawing comparisons. They frequently paint a picture to help decision making in public policy formulation.
When it comes to the national immigration debate, however, this is unfortunately not the case. The federal government’s immigration data have cast a heavy fog over the competing policy arguments from the left and right.
For example, The Economist reported last year that the Obama administration had expelled nearly 2 million undocumented immigrants, nearly nine times the rate of 20 years ago. The magazine even referred to the president as the “deporter-in-chief.”
“For [Obama’s] first term, and continuing today, he has been a harsh enforcer of immigration laws, boosting deportations, removals and returns of unauthorized immigrants,” said Alex Nowrosteh in an interview, the immigration policy analyst at the libertarian think tank Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. “He made it harder in his first term to get guest worker visas.”
Susan Martin, a professor of international migration at Georgetown University, agreed that expulsions have been a main focus of U.S. immigration policy.
“We have an immigration enforcement system that has been very much focused on [deportations] and the periphery of the country,” Martin said in a phone interview. “It has actually gotten to be a lot more effective in deterring cross border undocumented migration.”
On the contrary, The Los Angeles Times reported last year that illegal immigrants residing in the United States are less likely to be deported today than before Obama came to office. The paper wrote that according to government data, expulsions of people who are settled and working in the United States have decreased more than 40 percent since 2009.
David Inserra, a research associate at the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, said there is indeed a lack of enforcement by the executive branch of the nation’s immigration law, as over 11 million undocumented immigrants reside in the United States.
“Whether or not we are willing to deport certain people, whether or not we are willing to engage in proper amounts of border security or enforcement against businesses, these are things that ultimately fall to the executive branch, and the executive branch is not willing to do it.” Inserra said in an interview. “And that is what is breaking the system. That is what has led us to the situation where we are now.”
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization that advocates for reducing illegal and legal immigration, concurred.
“Over the past six years, [Obama] has done virtually nothing to enforce immigration law,” Mehlman said in a phone interview. “He isn’t even doing a good job of deporting criminal aliens. He is releasing them onto the streets.”
Mehlman also contended that immigration activists are also inflating the deportation figures.
“The border patrol is doing the apprehensions and turning them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the ICE would get credit for the deportation,” Mehlman said. “This is something that had not been done in the past. In the past, the border patrol would simply return people back across the border when they caught them.”
Removals and Returns Over The Years
Is it really possible for President Obama to be both the “deporter-in-chief” and a lax enforcer of immigration law?
To some extent, these are dueling political theologies. But when it comes to statistics, one must look at what specifically is being counted, both now and the historical period in comparison.
The Economist is counting the “removal” statistics compiled by Immigration and Customs Enforcement from FY 2009 to FY 2013. A removal is defined by the Department of Homeland Security as the “the compulsory and confirmed movement of an inadmissible or deportable alien out of the United States based on an order of removal.”
Combined with the removals by ICE in FY 2014, the total number of removals under the Obama administration stands higher than any previous president at 2,274,038.
The LA Times contended that The Economist’s conclusion was misleading. The Times’ Brian Bennet argues that immigration data shows that living illegally in most of the continental U.S. are less likely to be deported today than before Obama came to office.
“On the other side of the ledger, the number of people deported at or near the border has gone up — primarily as a result of changing who gets counted in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency’s deportation statistics,” Bennet writes.
“The vast majority of those border crossers would not have been treated as formal deportations under most previous administrations.”
The LA Times is correct in noting that ICE is grouping what used to be several terminologies into a single statistic. Prior to April 1997, immigration law distinguished between what was known as “exclusions” and “deportations.”
The federal government defined exclusion as the formal “denial of an alien’s entry into the United States,” according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. An immigration justice would make a decision to exclude an illegal immigrant after an exclusion hearing. These exclusions were never regarded as deportations.
Deportations referred to the formal removal of those were expelled from the United States after settling inside U.S. territory.
When the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 was passed, it consolidated these procedures into a single process called “removals.” The term “deportation” still continues to be thrown around by the media, however, even though it no longer has an official meaning in immigration statistics.
Fortunately, DHS compiles statistics from across all of its subsidiary agencies that deal with immigration, including ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, to create an annual “Yearbook of Immigration Statistics.”
One chart in the 2013 yearbook – the most recent one available – contains the data for illegal immigrants “removed” and “returned” for every year since 1892. The yearbook combines what used to be known as exclusions and deportations for years prior to 1997 into a single category of removals for a single standard for comparison.
So what does the table show?
The Obama administration has conducted 2,017,814 removals from FY 2009 to FY 2013. In just five years, the Obama administration has surpassed the total number of the George W. Bush administration, which conducted 2,012,539 removals in eight years.
Under the Bill Clinton administration, 869,646 individuals were removed over eight years. Removals have already doubled that number under the Obama administration, and are on pace to more than triple those under Clinton.
Does this mean Obama is a harsher enforcer of immigration than his predecessors?
It should be noted that removals spiked 64 percent from FY 1996 to FY 1997, and 52 percent between FY 1997 and FY 1998. The reason for this is because the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 gave immigration officials more power in enforcing immigration law, ultimately making it easier to remove people.
For example, immediate expulsion previously was allowed only for offenses that could result in five or more years in jail. Under the 1996 law, the minimum five-year sentence was changed to one year. This meant that minor offenses like shoplifting could result in the immediate expulsion of an individual.
Removals spiked in FY 1997, and have steadily increased through FY 2013, when 438,421 individuals were removed.
Changes in the law, therefore, have made it very difficult to compare removals across several presidential administrations, as the law has encompassed different people during different time periods. Previous presidents did not have these expanded law enforcement powers, with the exception of Clinton for part of his second term.
Another statistic we can look at in our quest for clarity is “returns.” A return is defined by DHS as “the confirmed movement of an inadmissible or deportable alien out of the United States not based on an order of removal.” Individuals who are returned are simply sent back across the border.
Since returns do not involve formal charges, they do not come with the harsh penalties assessed for a removal. If an individual is removed, he or she cannot return to the United States for at least five years, and can face jail time if caught returning illegally.
Returns began to decrease under the Bush administration. In FY 2000, Clinton’s last year in office, returns totaled 1,675,876. That number dropped to 1,349,371 in FY 2001, then to 1,012,116 in FY 2002 and to 945,294. In FY 2013, only 178,371 individuals were returned.
As The LA Times, The New York Times and The New Republic note, this reflects a policy decision started by the Bush administration and accelerated by Obama administration to charge immigration violators who previously would have been returned across the border without formal charges and ensure that they have formal charges on their records.
The hope was that an increase in punishments would provide a disincentive for individuals to sneak back into the United States illegally.
Under Bush, removals combined with returns totaled 10,328,850. The number under Obama totaled 3,805,552 after five years, which is on pace to fall well short of Bush’s total. Clinton’s combined total was 12,290,905, with George H.W. Bush tallying 4,161,683 in just four years.
So do these numbers show that Obama is actually a very weak enforcer of U.S. immigration law?
This question turns out to be much harder to answer objectively.
Mehlman says the lower numbers show an unwillingness of President Obama to enforce the law.
“Obama has made it very clear that he doesn’t like the law,” Mehlman said. “We are seeing with his executive action that he is going to do whatever he wants and that he has no intention of enforcing [the law].
Inserra concurred, pointing to the doctrine of prosecutorial discretion, which refers to the government’s choosing of whether or not to bring criminal charges.
“The laws of our country say that if [illegal immigrants] meet certain criteria, then they should be deported,” Inserra said. “But the problem is that we are not abiding by those criteria. We are not allowing officers to enforce the law as it is written.”
But others say that it isn’t fair to group returns and removals together. Nowrosteh noted that removals “carry more harsh penalties than returns.”
More than 80 percent of Bush’s combined total of removals and returns consisted of returns. For Clinton, returns consisted of 93 percent of the total. Under Bush Sr., returns made up nearly 97 percent.
As for Obama, returns only make up 47 percent of the combined total, meaning more than half of the individuals expelled from the United States have been hit with the penalties that come with removal.
So there you have it. If you want to portray Obama as a heartless “deporter-in-chief,” you can use his high removal totals and point to his removals to returns ratio.
But if you want to paint him as a soft, immigrant lover, use his low expulsion totals, and emphasize the change in terminologies.
- Alex Nowrosteh
- Immigration policy analyst
- Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity
- (202) 789-5205
- Phone interview (4/8/15)
- Susan Martin
- Professor of international migration
- Georgetown University
- (202) 687-2153
- Phone interview (4/8/15)
- David Inserra
- Research Associate
- Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy
- In-person interview (2/11/15)
- Ira Mehlman
- National Media Director/Spokesperson
- Federation for American Immigration Reform
- (206) 420-7733
- Phone interview (4/27/15)