It is one of the Obama administration’s favorite talking points on immigration: It has been deporting illegal immigrants in record numbers. That bolsters its credentials on enforcement and supports the argument that, now that we’ve gotten tough on the border, it is time to enact comprehensive immigration reform.
But figures recently unearthed by a federal lawsuit in Texas cast serious doubt on the administration’s deportation claims. The number of deportations appears to have declined significantly during the president’s term in office.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, has analyzed a set of largely unpublished official statistics on immigration-enforcement activity over the past five years. Earlier this month, Vaughan testified in court on behalf of a group of U.S. Immigration and Customs (ICE) agents who are suing the administration over its use of “prosecutorial discretion” in dictating how immigration law is enforced — or not enforced. The agents are seeking an injunction against a series of policy directives from ICE and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that were designed to regulate the extent to which ICE officers could initiate deportation proceedings for illegal immigrants in their custody.
In her testimony on April 8, Vaughan noted that, contrary to the administration’s claims, the number of illegal-immigrant removals has dropped 40 percent since June 2011, when ICE director John Morton issued the first of several directives outlining significant changes to the agency’s enforcement policies. “There has been a significant decline in enforcement activity as measured by the number of removals,” Vaughan says.
Deportations specifically of illegal immigrants convicted of a crime — individuals the administration says it has prioritized for removal — are similarly down, almost 40 percent since June 2011, Vaughan found. And that decline has occurred despite a significant increase in the number of illegal immigrants referred to ICE after being arrested for crimes. “There are certainly enough illegal aliens out there, especially enough criminal illegal aliens, that their numbers should be going up, not down,” Vaughan says. “So they appear to be giving a lot of free passes to people who are a public-safety problem, beyond the fact that they are here illegally.”
Removals generated by ICE’s Enforcement and Removals division, which is responsible for interior immigration enforcement, have decreased nearly 50 percent since June 2011. Vaughan says the administration has been inflating its deportation statistics by including a greater number of U.S. Border Patrol cases — illegal immigrants picked up at the border and subsequently referred to ICE — as part of its annual statistics. Border Patrol cases accounted for 56 percent of removals reported in fiscal year 2013, up from 33 percent in 2008. Typically, an individual apprehended at the southern border is simply returned to Mexico without being processed as a deportation by ICE.
Vaughan says this undermines the administration’s claim that pursuing criminal cases is its top priority. This was the primary argument that DHS secretary Janet Napolitano put forward in June 2012, when she issued a directive instructing ICE officers to refrain from initiating deportation proceedings for illegal immigrants who might qualify for “DREAM status” — immigrants who were brought here illegally, are currently enrolled in school or the military, and have not been convicted of a serious crime. “They have been justifying policies by saying it enables them to focus more on criminals,” Vaughan says. “What’s happening is actually the opposite. The majority of resources are going toward supporting Border Patrol activity.”
Internal e-mails uncovered earlier this year show that ICE officials, concerned about the falling numbers of criminal deportations, have directed agents to come up with methods to reverse that trend. “The only performance measure that will count this fiscal year is the criminal-alien removal target,” former assistant director of ICE field operations David Venturella wrote in an e-mail in April 2012 to agents in Atlanta. However, Vaughan said she could find no discernable uptick in criminal deportations that might have resulted from this new emphasis.
Chris Crane, who heads the union representing more than 7,000 ICE agents and officers, tells NRO that he has long been baffled by the administration’s claims of record deportation numbers. “We just don’t see it in our offices,” he says. “Every year we supposedly break the record for deportation, and we can’t figure out what’s going on. We don’t believe these numbers.” Administration officials claim to have deported 409,849 immigrants in fiscal year 2012, up from 392,000 in 2010. Crane argues that stats are being cooked to create a false impression of President Obama’s record on immigration enforcement.
“DHS and ICE are knowingly manipulating arrest and deportation data with the specific intent of misleading the American public with regard to the enforcement of illegal immigration in our country,” he told reporters Thursday at a Capitol Hill press conference. “At an alarming rate, ICE arrest and deportation numbers have plummeted since 2008, clear evidence that interior enforcement has in large part been shut down over the last four years.”
Administration lawyers did not extensively challenge Vaughan’s court testimony, other than to introduce a bar graph, based on ICE statistics, showing that convicted criminals accounted for 55 percent of all deportations in fiscal year 2012. That figure is misleadingly high, Vaughan stresses, because it includes a large number of Border Patrol removals referred to ICE. In some cases that transfer process may have led to double counting, further inflating the total number of removals, she says.
The Senate Gang of Eight has finally produced a bill that would grant immediate legal status to illegal immigrants, in exchange for a plan from DHS to further secure the border and enforce the law. Vaughan is skeptical that it will work, given the administration’s current record of enforcement and its willingness to manipulate its own statistics. “It seems to me foolhardy for Congress to trust that this administration is actually going to implement any new enforcement plans,” she says.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.