It’s not often you get a public official to speak this frankly: “If you are a run-of-the-mill immigrant here illegally, your odds of getting deported are close to zero.” That was John Sandweg, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement until a few weeks ago, speaking to the Los Angeles Times earlier this week.
His observation helps explain the apparent conflict between the deportation claims of the Obama administration and those of its critics. In a nutshell, immigration officials have been ordered to essentially ignore illegal aliens in the interior of the country (whose removal is what people think of when they hear “deportations”) and instead are increasingly counting as deportations the return of people arrested at the border.
This strategy was driven by the need to claim “record deportations” as proof of the administration’s bona fides regarding enforcement while at the same time disturbing the illegal-alien population as little as possible. Such a claim is seen as imperative to getting an omnibus amnesty-plus-more-immigration bill past skeptics in Congress.
Ironically, the very open-borders forces pushing that amnesty have taken the administration press releases at face value and are now rebelling. Obama has been attacked as the deporter-in-chief, and the coalition demanding a halt to all deportations plans nationwide protests tomorrow marking what they estimate to be the 2 millionth deportation under his administration.
However, as my colleague Jessica Vaughan first reported a year ago, deportations resulting from interior enforcement (as opposed to border arrests) declined some 40 percent over the past two years. More than half the deportations in 2012 came from Border Patrol arrests.
This matters because the departures of illegal aliens are grouped into one of two categories. (See table 39 here for specifics.) “Returns” are people arrested, usually by the Border Patrol, and sent back without being formally deported. “Removals” are people who’ve undergone a formal proceeding and are then expelled, usually by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It is this second category the administration is referring to when it boasts of record deportations.
Part of the reason for the shift of border arrests into the “removals” category is that more people arrested by the Border Patrol are now being formally processed, so that if they return they can be charged with the felony crime of re-entry after deportation.
This began in a small way under the George W. Bush administration and is a good thing; it seeks to move away from the frivolous approach to border enforcement we’d taken for so long. But it means that today’s “removal” numbers simply can’t be compared to those under earlier administrations. Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson admitted as much last month, conceding at a congressional hearing that “a very large fraction” of removals . . . are basically border removals, where they’re apprehended in or around the border” and are “in the country for a very short period of time.” He agreed with a questioner’s statement that “they wouldn’t have been counted in prior administrations.”
To complicate matters further for the administration, ICE now is formally notified by local law enforcement about far more misbehaving illegal aliens in the interior than ever before. This is due in large part to the Secure Communities program, also begun under Bush and completed only last year. The fingerprints of suspects booked by local police and sheriffs have always been sent to the FBI; now, for the first time, they are also sent to DHS to see if they have any immigration problems.
When you combine this increase in information about arrested non-citizens with White House instructions to minimize deportations of settled illegal aliens, you end up with lots of arrested illegals simply being released back into the country. Vaughan published findings the other day on this catch-and-release policy: ICE released three-quarters of potentially deportable aliens it encountered in 2013, including 68,000 criminals.
And we can expect genuine deportations from the interior to fall further. President Obama last month ordered Secretary Johnson to come up with ways of “more humanely” enforcing immigration laws. To this end, the same former ICE chief John Sandweg who said there’s “close to zero” chance of a “run-of-the-mill” illegal alien in the interior being deported launched a trial balloon on how to further expand the definition of “run-of-the-mill.”
Currently, the narrow categories of illegal aliens in the interior who may be deported (in other words, they’re not “run-of-the-mill”) includes “aliens who are fugitives or otherwise obstruct immigration controls.” In a recent op-ed Sandweg floated the idea of essentially eliminating this entire category, exempting from deportation even those guilty of felony re-entry after deportation and of absconding from immigration court, since those are merely immigration offenses and therefore presumably not “real” crimes worthy of notice. This would effectively vitiate deportation as a tool of enforcement and render the whole immigration-court process superfluous. It would invite every illegal alien, and prospective illegal alien, to defy our law without consequence.
I don’t think that before the November election Obama will do as many of his supporters are demanding and grant de facto amnesty to millions of additional illegal aliens, à la his illegal DACA/DREAM amnesty. That amnesty was announced prior to the 2012 election specifically to increase Hispanic turnout. But a midterm electorate is very different, and a sweeping unilateral amnesty seems like it would do more harm than good, boosting anti-Obama sentiment with relatively little payoff. After the election, all bets are off — but that’s another column.
But in the meantime, more arcane steps like those floated by Sandweg to further limit the authority of ICE agents to deport illegal aliens are quite likely.
— Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.