Q&A: What does Trump mean when he says he will deport ‘criminal’ immigrants first?

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
(Chuck Burton / Associated Press)

During a week of ping-ponging immigration stances, Donald Trump appears to be shifting his position from one which initially called for the deportation of all 11 million people here illegally to one that would focus on “criminal” immigrants.

Though it is true that some in the U.S. illegally have criminal records, the majority of those have violated only immigration laws or committed other nonviolent offenses, not the murders and assaults that Trump often brings up during stump speeches.

After a backlash from supporters worried he is backing down on a key campaign promise, Trump is now said to be reconsidering his change in policy. He is expected to outline his ideas Wednesday during a speech in Arizona.


What does Trump want to do?

It’s not entirely clear yet. Though he still plans to build a wall along the Mexico border, he began speaking in recent days about “softening” his policy. In a Fox News interview, he spoke about backing away from his earlier call to create a “deportation force” that would round up and kick out all immigrants in the country illegally, including their American-born children in some cases.

In recent days, he has said he would instead focus deportations on those with criminal records. On his first day in office, Trump said, he plans to sign orders to speed up the removal of “criminal illegal immigrants” from the U.S.

“These international gangs of thugs and drug cartels will be — I promise you, from the first day in office, the first thing I’m going to do, the first piece of paper that I’m going to sign is — we’re going to get rid of these people, Day 1, before the wall, before anything,” Trump said during a speech at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on Saturday.

Trump hasn’t said what specific policy changes would help immigration agents find convicted criminals and speed up their deportation. But he has insisted that law enforcement agents know who and where they are.

Is this different from the Obama administration?


Not much actually. After suspected spies and terrorists, convicted criminals are already included in the highest-priority category for deportation from the U.S. A person convicted of a crime while a member of a street gang is also considered a high priority for removal by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In 2014, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson ordered Border Patrol agents and deportation officers to focus on deporting people with criminal records and those who had come to the U.S. after Jan. 1 of that year. Those who had entered illegally before that, if they had no other violations on their record, were pushed to the bottom of the list for removal, even if a person had been deported once before.

Records show Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 235,413 people last year, down from a record high of 409,849 in 2012. Over that time, the percentage of immigrants deported with criminal convictions increased from 55% in 2012 to 59% in 2015.

Of those deported from the interior of the U.S., 91% had criminal convictions in 2015, according to ICE statistics. That number was higher because it excludes deportations that occur closer to the border, where the legal and logistical hurdles are lower.

Obama administration officials say the total number of removals is down because a large percentage of people now apprehended are from Central America, and it takes longer to send people back to countries that don’t share a border with the U.S.

In addition, about 10% of all people deported each year are lawful permanent residents in the country legally who have been convicted of a crime, according to the American Immigration Council.

Once someone is ordered removed, “ICE does its job,” said Alonzo Peña, former deputy director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement from 2008 to 2010. “They get an order, get the person, they put him on an airplane and they are gone.”

Could that effort be accelerated?

It would be difficult. First, chasing down and removing people with criminal histories takes more time and resources than deporting indiscriminately.

Also any effort to speed up the removal of convicted criminals would run up against a massive case backlog in the immigration courts. By law, a deportation order can be challenged in immigration court. In some jurisdictions, such as Los Angeles and Denver, the backlogs can delay deportations for years, even if a person has been convicted of a crime.

The only way to deport someone without going before a judge is if a person agrees to leave voluntarily, or if the person was caught within two weeks of crossing illegally into the U.S. or apprehended within 100 miles of the U.S. border.

Congressional action to increase the number of immigration judges and courts could help speed things up, though gridlock in Washington makes that unlikely.

“If Trump wanted to do something to increase enforcement it would be to triple the immigration judges,” said John Sandweg, former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “That would be the most effective way to increase deportations from the U.S.”

“You can’t wave a magic wand and just remove all the criminal aliens; they still have to go through the process,” Sandweg said.

How many immigrants have criminal records and what sorts of crimes have they committed?

Exact figures on that are hard to find because immigrants here illegally often live in the shadows and aren’t always identified in crime statistics.

But studies have indicated that even as the number of immigrants illegally living in the U.S. tripled between 1990 and 2013, the violent crime rate declined 48%, according to a 2015 report from the American Immigration Council.

The same report found the rate of incarceration is lower among all types of immigrants in the U.S. than among native-born Americans; roughly 1.6% of immigrant men ages 18-39 are incarcerated, compared with 3.3% of native-born American men of that age.

Among immigrants with criminal convictions who were deported from the U.S., by far the most common felony conviction, about 31%, is an immigration violation, including entry, reentry, false claims to citizenship and alien smuggling, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement data from 2013.

About 15% of offenses are related to “dangerous drugs,” including possession, sale, distribution and manufacturing. Another 15% are related to “criminal traffic offenses,” which include minor incidents, hit-and-run and driving under the influence.

Assault charges make up about 10% of criminal deportations, followed by burglary at 2.8%, weapons offenses at 2.7%, larceny at 2.7%, fraudulent activities at 2.6%, sexual assault at 1.6% and forgery at 1.5%.

Aren’t some immigrants with criminal convictions released inside the U.S.?

In the past, some local jurisdictions failed to contact immigration agents when a foreign national was going to be released after serving a sentence.

The July 2015 shooting of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle on a pier at San Francisco’s Embarcadero brought the issue of local cooperation with immigration officials into the national spotlight. The man arrested in her death had been jailed on an immigration law violation after returning to the U.S. despite being deported five times. He was released from custody months before the shooting after San Francisco prosecutors decided not to pursue a decades-old bench warrant in a marijuana case.

Trump has called for local officials to be required to identify people who are in jail and could be deported when they are released.

On Jan. 31, 21-year-old college student Sarah Root was killed by a drunk driver in Omaha, Neb. Eswin G. Mejia, an 18-year-old Honduran man in the U.S. illegally, was arrested for striking her vehicle but disappeared after being released on bond. The judge reportedly wasn’t told about Mejia’s failure to appear at two earlier court appearances.

Sometimes immigrants can’t be returned home. A few countries, including China, Cuba, Iran and North Korea, won’t receive convicted criminals from the U.S., so immigration agents struggle to find a place to send them. On top of that, a 2001 Supreme Court decision, Zadvydas vs. Davis, requires U.S. immigration officials to release a foreign national with a final deportation order within six months if there is no country that will accept him or her.

In the last three years, 8,275 immigrants with criminal convictions were released in the U.S. under the Zadvydas ruling, according to a report published in July by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

What was been the reaction of Trump supporters?

Mixed. Some think his willingness to embrace a more humane approach to immigration reform will win over moderate Republicans.

But advocates of hard-line immigration policies say they feel betrayed and recently dubbed Trump with the hashtag #AmnestyDon. They would still like to see Trump order immigration agents to deport anyone they find who is in the country illegally, rather than focus solely on recent arrivals, repeat immigration violators and convicted criminals, as the Obama administration has done.

“When it comes to deportation, you prioritize the bad guys but that doesn’t mean you stop enforcing the other laws,” said Ira Melman, the media director for Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington organization that advocates for lower immigration levels. Melman thinks that such an approach, despite being disruptive to families already living in the U.S., would deter future immigrants from coming to the U.S.

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