Proponents of comprehensive immigration reform aren’t buying the Republican argument that President Obama simply can’t be trusted to secure the border or enforce new immigration laws.
The Washington Post editorial board called this suggestion “transparently false,” citing the “record” number of deportations under the Obama administration. Meanwhile, liberal activists have urged the president to halt all deportations of illegal immigrants via executive action.
But there is ample evidence to suggest the administration’s deportation record is severely inflated, or at the very least misrepresented.
Consider the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) report on year-end removal numbers for fiscal year 2013. ICE reported a total of 368,644 removals for the year (down considerably from the 409,949 removals reported the previous year).
The ICE report noted that of those 368,644 removals, 235,093 (or nearly two-thirds) were carried out on individuals “apprehended while, or shortly after, attempting to illegally enter the United States.” This shows that while the Obama administration continues to deport illegal immigrants in large numbers, most of these removals do not constitute a “deportation” in the conventional sense.
Activists fighting to end deportations argue that, while the people being deported are here illegally, they’ve been living in the country for some time, often with relatives or children of their own — hence the charge that deportations “break up families.” Cases like these exist, but as the ICE data show, they are the minority. For the most part, the Obama administration is “deporting” people it catches in the act of entering the country illegally.
In fact, the Department of Homeland Security’s own guidelines distinguish between “removals” and “returns.” According to DHS, a removal is defined as “the compulsory and confirmed movement of an inadmissible or deportable alien out of the United States based on an order of removal.”
Returns, meanwhile, are defined as “the confirmed movement of an inadmissible or deportable alien out of the United States not based on an order of removal. Most of the voluntary returns are of Mexican nationals who have been apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol and are returned to Mexico.” The primary difference between the two categories is that removals are processed by ICE, while returns are not.
In 2012, Representative Lamar Smith (R., Texas), then chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, discovered that the Obama administration was counting a certain number of “returns” as “removals.” Immigrants apprehended at the border are often times referred to ICE and subsequently processed as a removal. This has the effect of artificially inflated the number of removals, or deportations, by at least 50,000 per year. It is also a reason why what the administration refers to as “border apprehensions” are near historic lows: People are in fact being apprehended at the border, but their cases are grouped as removals in the statistical record.
Smith said in a statement at the time, following a committee review of internal ICE documents:
Since 2011, the Obama administration has included in its year-end deportation statistics the numbers from a Border Patrol program that returns illegal immigrants to Mexico right after they cross the border. It is dishonest to count illegal immigrants apprehended by the Border Patrol along the border as ICE removals. And these “removals” from the Border Patrol program do not subject the illegal immigrant to any penalties or bars for returning to the U.S. This means a single illegal immigrant can show up at the border and be removed numerous times in a single year — and counted each time as a removal. When the numbers from this Border Patrol program are removed from this year’s deportation data, it shows that removals are actually down nearly 20 percent from 2009. Another 40,000 removals are also included in the final deportation count but it is unclear where these removals came from.
Immigration expert Jessica Vaughan made the same argument last year when she testified on behalf of ICE agents suing the Obama administration in federal court. Vaughan analyzed the administration’s enforcement statistics and found that the actual number of illegal-immigrant removals had dropped 40 percent since June 2011.
Chris Crane, president of the union representing more than 7,000 ICE agents and officers, has accused the Obama administration of “knowingly manipulating arrest and deportation data” to create a false impression of its enforcement record. “We just don’t see it in our offices,” he told National Review Online in April 2013. “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.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.