Turning the Tide on Deportations?

By Dennis Stinchcomb

Photo courtesy of ICE

Photo courtesy of ICE

U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) recently released statistics showing that deportations in fiscal year 2013 hit an all-time low since Obama took office in 2009, but the drop is apparently not yet a harbinger of a policy shift.  Removals fell slightly from a record high of 410,000 in 2012 to just under 370,000.  News of the first decline during Obama’s tenure comes as he has been under growing pressure from immigration advocates and some members of Congress to use his executive powers to bring removals to a halt.  But the slight decline can be attributed to several factors:

  • First, the administration has encouraged the use of “prosecutorial discretion,” which is the agency’s authority to enforce the law against a particular individual as it wishes, and has prioritized the deportation of violent criminal offenders and others deemed to be “national security threats.”  The removal of convicted criminals – a category that conflates those convicted of aggravated felonies and misdemeanor crimes – is more time- and resource-intensive, thus reducing the overall total of deportees.
  • A demographic shift in recent border crossers has contributed to the decline.  In fiscal year 2012, 71,527 of the recent border crossers removed by ICE were from countries other than Mexico (i.e., Central America).  In fiscal year 2013, this number rose by 27 percent to 90,461.  According to ICE, this triggered an increase in the use of ICE’s detention and removal resources because the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, responsible for many deportations, is only able to return individuals to Mexico.  (In 2010, Guatemalans represented 9 percent (or 29,378) of deportees; in 2013, they made up 13 percent (or 47,769) of all removals. Much the same can be said for Honduras and El Salvador.)
  • The president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy has also reduced deportation figures by granting reprieves to more than 450,000 of the “Dreamers.”

Though positive, the relatively small decrease does little to offset the Obama administration’s staggering deportation totals – 1.8 million since February 2009.  Nor does it signal an attempt to reverse course in light of the rapidly approaching 2 million mark.  The Obama administration is undoubtedly walking a political tightrope on the issue.  It is pressured by the right not to appear lax on enforcement, while many on the left want the president to sidestep a deadlocked Congress and loosen up on removals – a move Obama himself has characterized as executive overreach.  As the deportation rate remains steady, Obama risks eroding the support of Latinos, an increasingly powerful segment of the electorate.  So pervasive is the fear of deportation that, in a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, a majority of Latinos said protection from deportation was more important than a pathway to citizenship.  This would suggest that lawmakers might eventually be open to allowing undocumented immigrants to attain legal status even without a chance to naturalize.  Some 205,000 U.S. citizen children lost a parent because of deportations between July 2010 and September 2012 alone, and a growing number of them face the prospect of having to accompany a deported parent back to Central America, potentially increasing the political urgency for a fix to the country’s broken immigration system.

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