WASHINGTON — Immigration activists have sharply criticized President Obama for a rising volume of deportations, labeling him the “deporter in chief” and staging large protests that have harmed his standing with some Latinos, a key group of voters for Democrats.
But the portrait of a steadily increasing number of deportations rests on statistics that conceal almost as much as they disclose. A closer examination shows that immigrants living illegally in most of the continental U.S. are less likely to be deported today than before Obama came to office, according to immigration data.
Expulsions of people who are settled and working in the United States have fallen steadily since his first year in office, and are down more than 40% since 2009.
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.
The vast majority of those border crossers would not have been treated as formal deportations under most previous administrations. If all removals were tallied, the total sent back to Mexico each year would have been far higher under those previous administrations than it is now.
The shift in who gets tallied helped the administration look tough in its early years but now may be backfiring politically. Immigration advocates plan protests across the country this week around what they say will be the 2 millionth deportation under Obama — a mark expected to be hit in the next few days. And Democratic strategists fret about a decline in Latino voter turnout for this fall’s election.
Until recent years, most people caught illegally crossing the southern border were simply bused back into Mexico in what officials called “voluntary returns,” but which critics derisively termed “catch and release.” Those removals, which during the 1990s reached more 1 million a year, were not counted in Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s deportation statistics.
Now, the vast majority of border crossers who are apprehended get fingerprinted and formally deported. The change began during the George W. Bush administration and accelerated under Obama. The policy stemmed in part from a desire to ensure that people who had crossed into the country illegally would have formal charges on their records.
In the Obama years, all of the increase in deportations has involved people picked up within 100 miles of the border, most of whom have just recently crossed over. In 2013, almost two-thirds of deportations were in that category.
At the same time, the administration largely ended immigration roundups at workplaces and shifted investigators into targeting business owners who illegally hired foreign workers.
“If you are a run-of-the-mill immigrant here illegally, your odds of getting deported are close to zero — it’s just highly unlikely to happen,” John Sandweg, until recently the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in an interview.
Even when immigration officials want to deport someone who already has settled in the country, doing so is “virtually impossible” because of a lengthy backlog in the immigration courts, Sandweg said. Once people who have no prior removals or convictions are placed in deportation proceedings, actually removing them from the country can take six years or more in some jurisdictions, Sandweg said.
Deportations of people apprehended in the interior of the U.S., which the immigration agency defines as more than 100 miles from the border, dropped from 237,941 in Obama’s first year to 133,551 in 2013, according to immigration data. Four out of five of those deportees came to the attention of immigration authorities after criminal convictions.
Many of those convictions are related to crossing the border — the other big consequence of the change in the way border removals are handled.
A growing number of people caught trying to cross the border now have a formal deportation order on their records. Entering the country without legal authorization is not a crime. But once a person has been deported, he can be prosecuted if he reenters the country.
The policy of deporting border crossers and then prosecuting people who reenter has increased the number of immigrants charged in federal court. In 1992, immigration offenses accounted for 5% of federal convictions. In the subsequent two decades, the share of immigration cases on the federal docket increased sixfold, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.
In 2012, immigration offenses made up 30% of federal convictions, second only to drug cases, which made up one-third.
The new system has criminalized immigration violations, notes Chris Newman, legal director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, based in Los Angeles.
Immigration activists have pressured Obama to use his executive authority to stop deporting immigrants with close family ties in the U.S. and no criminal history other than immigration-related violations.
Deportations at the border can have an impact on families living within the U.S., said Doris Meissner, who headed the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000. An increasing portion of people illegally crossing the border today have lived in the U.S. before and have long-standing links to U.S. communities, she said.
“People trying to get back are increasingly people who have roots in the U.S.,” Meissner said.
The administration’s move to step up deportations at the border coincided with increased hiring of agents and spending on border security. In 2010, Congress approved a $600-million infusion to add border agents and new surveillance technology. There are now more than 21,000 Border Patrol agents on the border, twice the number of a decade ago.
During the first two years after coming to office, Obama administration officials touted the record-setting deportation figures, hoping that strict enforcement at the border would convince Republicans to come to the negotiating table on immigration reform.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was “crowing” about the increasing deportations, said Marshall Fitz, an immigration expert at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington.
The Homeland Security Department “was patting itself on the back for reaching these record numbers,” Fitz said. “I think they thought it was important to show they were very serious about this.”
Sandweg, the former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, rejected the suggestion that political objectives drove deportation policy. By handing detainees over to immigration officials for deportation, rather than processing them directly, Border Patrol agents could spend more time on patrol, he said.
“From Day One we were following a policy that would emphasize public safety and border security,” Sandweg said.
But regardless of motivation, the shift had the effect of emphasizing the administration’s enforcement efforts, which over time has angered Latino activists and their allies in the U.S. labor movement.
Meanwhile, the change in enforcement does not seem to have placated Republican lawmakers, who are tough opponents of the administration’s border policies.
The turn away from deporting immigrants from the interior of the country amounts to an open invitation for people to come to the U.S. on a legal visa and stay, said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
“It just cannot be the policy of the U.S. that if somebody gets past the border and gets to St. Louis or Memphis or Austin, Texas, or New York, they are not going to be deported,” Sessions said. “The administration is systematically failing to enforce immigration law uniformly.”