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Report: deportations way down during Obama’s second term

These days there might be more empty seats on ICE planes.
These days there might be more empty seats on ICE planes.
John Moore/Getty

Deportations have declined significantly since last fall, continuing a two-year trend, according to the Associated Press. Citing internal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) documents, the AP reports that 258,608 immigrants were deported between October 1, 2013, and July 28, 2014 — a rate of about 862 per day.

If ICE stays on that pace through September 30 of this year, it will mean a 15 percent decrease in deportations since 2013, when 1,010 immigrants a day were deported. Furthermore, deportations would be down 23 percent since 2012, when a record 409,849 immigrants were deported — a rate of 1,120 per day.

How reliable are these numbers?

It's not clear. ICE doesn't release its own numbers to the public anymore until a few months after the end of each fiscal year, and preliminary reports to the press during the fiscal year can be off the mark. Because the AP says it got its information from internal government documents, it's probable that these are the same numbers ICE itself is using. But even then, ICE often goes back and adjusts numbers retroactively — even from one year to the next.

The numbers should be taken seriously  — but with a grain of salt.

child hugging detainee father

Why have deportations declined?

The AP report cites two factors — but there are probably four:

1. The Obama administration's policy of "prosecutorial discretion." In 2010 and 2011, the Department of Homeland Security issued a series of memos instructing agents to focus on certain kinds of unauthorized immigrants — which it called "high-priority" deportations — and try not to deport long-resident unauthorized immigrants and parents of US citizens.

Exactly how successful the memos were in protecting "low-priority" immigrants is a matter of dispute (which is why immigrant-rights advocates are pushing for the Obama administration to let immigrants apply directly for protection from deportation, rather than hoping DHS doesn't decide to deport them). But numbers released by ICE in recent years indicate that the overwhelming majority of deportees fall into one of the priority categories. And ICE numbers from last year showed the majority of immigrants were deported from the border region (the 100 miles past the border itself) and not from the interior of the US.

The new statistics might indicate that DHS is continuing to target particular groups for deportation — immigrants who are apprehended at or near the border and immigrants who have been convicted of crimes — and avoiding the deportation of longtime residents who haven't committed crimes.

2. The massive backlog in immigration courts. Before most immigrants can be deported, they have a right to a hearing in immigration court, where a judge makes sure they're not eligible for legal status. But immigration courts are hugely under-resourced, and it takes a year or two for a case to make it through. Some of the decline in people ultimately getting deported could be attributed to the bottleneck in the middle of the process.

Data shows that the immigration court slowdown is particularly affecting immigrants in the interior, without criminal records — exactly the same immigrants the government isn't supposed to be deporting anyway. Immigrants who are apprehended at the border don't usually go through immigration court. According to new data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, 80 percent of immigrants who've gotten a deportation order from an immigration judge this year have been deported because of their immigration status. Only 20 percent were ordered deported for committing a separate crime.

So the government might be putting more energy into deporting immigrants on the border and immigrants who've committed crimes — people they can deport without sending them through the clogged immigration court system. Meanwhile, when immigration agents do try to deport an immigrant who's been living in the US without committing any crimes, the immigrant's getting stuck in a months- or years-long immigration court backlog.

immigrants in federal jail

3. More immigrants serving time in federal prison before being deported. Immigrants who are caught at the border continue to get charged in federal criminal court with illegal entry or illegal reentry at high rates. (They're the two most common charges in the entire federal court system.) Once convicted, they're obligated to serve a prison term before being deported. That's another factor that could be slowing down the process.

4. The child and family migrant crisis. It's almost certain that the crisis of children and families entering the US from Central America this spring and summer, which overwhelmed the government's resources, had some effect on deportations. But it's difficult to say exactly what it was — especially because these numbers only go through July 28.

The AP says that it takes longer to deport immigrants from Central America than it does from Mexico, because the government has to arrange plane flights. Another factor is probably that there's a separate legal process for dealing with unaccompanied children, that prevents them from being deported quickly — and that many families are likely seeking asylum in the US, which also entitles them to more due process before they're deported. (There are reports that the government is curtailing due process for families to get them deported more quickly.)

This doesn't mean that immigrants from Mexico, or immigrant adults, aren't still being apprehended while crossing the border. But the government might not have the resources to formally deport those immigrants — they might be getting returned instead, just like immigrants from Mexico were under George W. Bush.

Are deportations going to pick up in the last months of the fiscal year?

It's hard to say — mostly because of the impact of the child and family migrant crisis. The government started making an effort to deport families back to Central America in late July — right when this dataset ends. That could mean that deportations are happening at a faster pace right now than they were when the AP got the numbers. Since fewer children and families are coming into the US than came in spring and early summer, the government might have more resources available for deportation.

On the other hand, government officials warned this summer that the agencies responsible for immigration enforcement were strapped for resources because of the migrant crisis — and were on pace to run out of money entirely by the end of September. That might be constraining the pace of deportations as well.

Does this mean that Obama doesn't need to do anything via executive action?

Stop the deportations protest

A protest in front of the White House, July 31, 2014 (Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty)

This is another piece of evidence that, after setting records for deportations during Obama's first term, the government really is making an effort to deport fewer longtime residents and family members. But immigrant communities still aren't convinced that the government has really changed — in a survey this summer, over 70 percent of Latinos said that the government wasn't limiting deportations to criminals.

Regardless of how many immigrants who might have benefited from executive action are being deported, millions of immigrants still feel that they're at risk of deportation. The purpose of executive action would be to allow them to apply for a guarantee of protection from deportation for a certain amount of time, to banish that fear.

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