Illegal immigration: Is Obama 'deporter in chief'? A rundown of the numbers.

On Saturday, pro-immigrant groups are protesting the 2 millionth deportation under President Obama, expected to take place this month. Republicans take a different view of efforts to combat illegal immigration.

David Olson/Press Enterprise/AP
Protesters urging "not one more" during an anti-deportation protest in San Bernardino, Calif., on Thursday, April 3, 2014. About 70 demonstrators gathered for the protest.

Not one more deportation. That’s the rallying cry of pro-immigrant groups across the United States on Saturday. From Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., these groups are protesting the 2 millionth deportation under President Obama, expected to take place this month. That level represents a record rate among US presidents, according to the count by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Upset about families being split apart, the protesters are demanding that Mr. Obama end deportations until immigration reform gets through Congress. They’ve dubbed the president the “deporter in chief.”

Meanwhile, House Republicans, who are stalling on reform, complain that Obama is not enforcing the law – that he’s too weak on deportations.

Who is right?

It’s all in the counting. As reported by ICE, the president has indeed deported illegal immigrants at a higher rate than any other president. A new report, by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank, backs up the ICE’s claim. 

But according to Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan group that seeks lower immigration, ICE counts deportations differently than did past administrations, adding border crossers to its total.. This is why its numbers look bigger by historical comparison. 

The counting switch, she explains, originated in a policy change in which the Border Patrol began handing over to ICE many of the people it had been immediately returning across the border. Now, after processing and penalizing them, ICE removes them from the country, often at a different location along the border.

The policy aims to separate illegal border crossers from dangerous smugglers who helped them. And by penalizing them, it aims to reduce the likelihood that they will cross again.

The numerical effect, though, is to include the Border Patrol “referrals” in the ICE count of “removals,” and thus both sets of government data are counted as deportations. In previous administrations, those caught at the border were not counted as deportations, Ms. Vaughan says.

To account for this difference, she counts the total number of illegal immigrants sent back as reported by all immigration-related agencies, starting with President Eisenhower. What she finds is that the real deporter in chief was President Clinton, who sent an annual average of 1.5 million illegal immigrants out of the US. Obama ranks seventh, sending an average of 800,000 per year packing.

“Yes, on paper, the number of deportations did hit a record,” says Vaughan, speaking of the Obama administration. “But the types of cases counted to achieve that record changed dramatically.”

Not so fast, says Theresa Brown, an immigration expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Record keeping has changed over time, as have immigration policies, so getting an accurate picture of deportations over past decades is not really possible. “You can interpret these numbers based on your bias,” she says.

But both Vaughan and Ms. Brown agree with this interpretation of ICE data: that enforcement under Obama has shifted to the border and away from the interior – the vast rest of the country beyond 100 miles of the border. Interior removals have dropped by 40 percent over the past three years, according to the most recent ICE data, while nearly two-thirds of deportations are from the border area.

House Republicans complain bitterly about the drop in interior enforcement, which is driven by a 2011 ICE directive not to arrest illegal immigrants who are minor criminals, longtime residents, students, parents, and caregivers. In 2012, the administration also decided to defer enforcement for children of illegal immigrants, the so-called DREAMers.

Using prosecutorial discretion, enforcers are instead concentrating on removing illegal immigrants who are especially harmful to American society – criminals. “Since 2008, the share of deported immigrants that ICE classifies as ‘criminal aliens’ has nearly doubled from 31 percent to 59 percent,” according to the Bipartisan Policy Center study.

The administration has also continued the nearly 20-year trend of increased spending on enforcement, including on technology and Border Patrol agents. Spending on enforcement surpassed about $18 billion in fiscal year 2012 – up substantially from 1986, when Congress passed the last big immigration reform.

The US spends more money combating illegal immigration than it does on other major federal law enforcement combined, according to a study last year by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. The combined total includes spending for and by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Secret Service. 

“Border Patrol staffing, technology, and infrastructure have reached historic highs,” the Migration Policy Institute study says. And the ability to share data is now “embedded in virtually all critical immigration processes and agency practices.”

So, deporter in chief or slacker in chief? If you judge enforcement by deportations and spending, what you find is a mixed picture on deportations and historic highs on spending. As the Bipartisan Policy Center concludes, “Neither extreme is wholly accurate.”

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