The Corner

Immigration

Obama as Deporter in Chief? Hardly

President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington, D.C., June 23, 2016. (Carlos Barria/Reuters )

The Democratic presidential candidates have been notable in their indifference, and even hostility, toward the Obama administration’s record. Many commentators have noted, including Jonah on the home page Friday, that Republicans still claim Reagan’s mantle 30 years after he left office. But 30 months after Obama stepped down — despite his continuing personal popularity — his legacy is treated as a liability by his own party.

Last week’s Democratic debates showed this implicitly and explicitly. As to the first: If Obamacare was the solution to our health woes, why are all the Democrats claiming our health-insurance system is a disaster requiring a takeover by the state?

But the explicit attacks on Obama’s immigration record are perhaps more notable — and bogus. During Wednesday’s debate, Bill de Blasio repeatedly challenged Biden on the administration’s supposedly draconian level of deportations, with hecklers in the audience demanding an end to all deportations. Earlier in the month, anti-borders activists occupied Biden’s campaign office in Philadelphia “to confront the Democratic frontrunner over the millions of deportations that took place during the Obama Administration when he was vice president.”

But the idea that Obama was the “Deporter in Chief” (as La Raza head Janet Murguia called him in 2014) is deceptive. He did indeed deport a notable number of illegal aliens (and legal aliens who’d committed crimes), but the statistics don’t mean quite what Obama’s critics on the left think they mean.

First, some definitions. When we say “deportation,” what we usually mean is what the law refers to as “removal” — and returning illegally to the U.S. after such a removal is a felony. The other way an illegal alien can be sent back is called a “return,” where the alien agrees not to challenge his repatriation, and in return does not have a formal “removal” on his record. This less-serious means of repatriation is usually used for Mexican border-jumpers, who are handed back across the border in a matter of hours.

If you look at deportation in the broadest sense — combining both removals and returns — the Obama administration didn’t come close to the numbers of the prior two administrations, though that was mainly because there were so many returns of Mexican border jumpers, often the same people counted multiple times.

Instead, Obama’s critics on the left look at “removals” specifically. Though the numbers were significant, there are two reasons the “Deporter in Chief” claim is deceptive.

First, the number of removals under Obama did not really increase so much as plateau. From 1995, when the Republican Congress took over, to 2008, removals increased an average of 18 percent per year (and that includes the drop in removals in the wake of 9/11, when the INS was otherwise occupied). In contrast, the number of removals from 2008 to 2016 dropped an average of .6 percent per year, brought about by a slight increase early in Obama’s term that was canceled out by later reductions. So, even taking the statistics at face value, it was Clinton and Bush who made the investment in capacity to increase removals; Obama just inherited it, in a kind of born-on-third-base-and-think-you-hit-a-triple kind of situation.

But you can’t take the numbers at face value. Because in order to keep the removal statistics high — to bamboozle the public into believing an amnesty would be fine because he could be trusted to enforce the law going forward — Obama cooked the books. This legerdemain was exposed as early as 2010 by the Washington Post, which reported on the use of a variety of gimmicks to ensure that the number of removals for fiscal year 2010 was a “record.”

Three years later, the L.A. Times reported that removals of illegal aliens from the interior of the country dropped 40 percent from 2009 to 2014, but the overall removal number stayed high, “primarily as a result of changing who gets counted in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency’s deportation statistics.” What happened was that the Border Patrol would arrest a Mexican border infiltrator, but instead of “returning” him right away, as they ordinarily would, they handed him to ICE, which held him for a day or two and then sent him back — thus creating a removal rather than a return. President Obama defended himself from anti-enforcement protesters by acknowledging that “the statistics are actually a little deceptive” — without pointing out that the deception was part of a failed pro-amnesty political strategy.

As humorous as it is to see the Democratic presidential hopefuls castigate Obama for being too tough on immigration, there is a danger here for President Trump. Biden understands that the anti-border crazies who dominate the Democratic party are going to turn off voters in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and so he’s trying to sound reasonable. He’s rejected the idea of decriminalizing border infiltration, and he said on Wednesday that “if you cross the border illegally, you should be able to be sent back. It’s a crime.” That such a thing even has to be said is a sign of the decline of our republic, but it’s the kind of thing — combined with attacks on him by anti-border kooks — that can make Biden seem acceptable to general-election voters.

Mark Krikorian, a nationally recognized expert on immigration issues, has served as Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) since 1995.

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