Illegal-alien activists and their allies in Washington have staged vigils, occupied busy intersections and chained themselves to jailhouse fences in a coordinated campaign to persuade President Obama to declare an end to deportations, which they say have reached record levels under his administration.
As if his arm really needs twisting, the agitators have been promoting a storyline that Mr. Obama has deported more illegal aliens than any previous president. Nearly every news story about immigration policy today repeats this claim, including The New York Times, which recently stated: “Since taking office, President Obama has deported more than 1.9 million foreigners, immigration officials announced last week, a record for an American president.”
But it’s not true, not even close. Where is Politifact when we need it?
According to the federal government office that compiles and publishes immigration statistics, the Obama administration actually has the lowest number of deportations, and lowest average annual number of deportations since the Nixon administration.
This information is not buried in a government archive; nor does it require a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain. It is on the Department of Homeland Security’s Web site in an annual publication that is routinely consulted by everyone who covers the issue except, apparently, to verify advocates’ claims on deportations. It is the most reliable source for immigration statistics going back to 1927, comparable to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which publishes crime rates, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which calculates the unemployment rate.
There we find that in its first four years, the Obama administration deported 3.2 million aliens, averaging just about 800,000 per year. Official numbers for 2013 have not been released yet, but indications are that the total will be about the same. These numbers include all deportations done by all DHS officers at the border, at the ports of entry and from the interior of the country.
That is nowhere near the numbers of the George W. Bush administration, which deported 10.3 million aliens, averaging more than 1.3 million per year.
The actual deportations record is held by the Clinton administration, which sent back 12.3 million over eight years, averaging about 1.5 million per year. Even the Carter administration deported more people than the Obama administration.
Rather than use the official statistics, Mr. Obama’s team instead puts out press kits proclaiming record deportations. The catch is that these reports do not count all deportations, only those attributed to ICE, the agency responsible for interior enforcement. These have numbered about 400,000 a year since 2009, and add up to the 1.9 million figure cited by journalists.
This is the number that illegal-alien activists have extrapolated to chant “1,000 deportations a day” and “1,000 immigrant families broken up every day.”
The number sounds impressive, and would be a record for ICE — but like Barry Bonds’ home-run record, it’s artificially juiced. More than half of these deportations are actually people caught by the Border Patrol trying to enter illegally, who are then transferred briefly to ICE custody, not resident illegal aliens torn from their families in the interior. ICE Director John Sandweg recently admitted that ICE deported only 134,000 illegal aliens from the interior in 2013, out of a population of estimated at 11.5 million. Interior deportations are down 40 percent since 2009.
The reason deportations are so low under the Obama administration is because of a series of executive-decree amnesties and so-called “prosecutorial discretion” policies that shield at least 90 percent of the illegal-alien population from enforcement. Under current rules (as distinct from the law), illegal aliens with family members and those who have not committed other serious offenses are off-limits for deportation.
As a result, ICE agents now are releasing more illegal aliens than they are deporting, even though they have more resources and technology at their disposal than ever before. ICE is doing less with more than any prior administration, at great cost to Americans — not only in fiscal terms, but also in public safety.
These statistics matter. Advocates for illegal aliens, including the Obama administration’s top immigration agency officials, know that most Americans want more enforcement of immigration laws, and want Congress to avoid the mistakes of the past, in which amnesty was granted in exchange for enforcement promises that were never fulfilled. Establishing a strong enforcement record is central to the pro-amnesty legislative strategy, and also could serve as cover for further reducing deportations if Congress doesn’t cooperate.
As the House of Representatives prepares to continue the debate over immigration reform, let’s hope that it digs a little deeper into the president’s actual (appalling) performance on immigration enforcement, and does not accept press kits as a substitute for more credible metrics.
Jessica M. Vaughan is director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington D.C.-based research institute.