Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson acknowledged Tuesday that his department’s deportation numbers are now mostly made up of illegal immigrants caught at the border, not just those from the interior, which means they can’t be compared one-to-one with deportations under President Bush or other prior administrations.
The administration has argued it is tougher on illegal immigration than previous presidents, and immigrant-rights groups have excoriated President Obama, calling him the “deporter-in-chief” for having kicked out nearly 2 million immigrants during his five-year tenure.
But Republican critics have argued those deportation numbers are artificially inflated because more than half of those being deported were new arrivals, caught at the border by the U.S. Border Patrol. Previous administrations primarily counted only those caught in the interior of the U.S. by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“Under the Obama administration, more than half of those removals that were attributed to ICE are actually a result of Border Patrol arrests that wouldn’t have been counted in prior administrations,” said Rep. John Culberson, Texas Republican.
“Correct,” Mr. Johnson confirmed.
That would mean that in a one-to-one comparison with the final years of the Bush administration, deportations of those same people under Mr. Obama had actually fallen, according to immigration analysts who have studied the data.
In 2013, ICE was responsible for about 133,000 of the 368,000 immigrants removed. The Washington Times calculated that meant a less than 1 percent risk of an illegal immigrant living in the interior of the U.S. being deported.
Mr. Johnson said they are prioritizing those they think deserve deportation. In the past, illegal immigrants from Mexico who had just illegally crossed the border would often times be returned, only to try again almost immediately. Now, many of them are put into full deportation proceedings.
“We are enforcing the law. We are enforcing the law vigorously and effectively, which results in the removal of over 300,000 people a year over the last several years,” Mr. Johnson said. “We are using the resources Congress gave us to remove those we believe are threats to national security, public safety and border security. And they result in the numbers that you see.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle Tuesday pleaded with Mr. Johnson for more information on the status of immigration enforcement, saying it is tougher to pass a comprehensive immigration-reform bill.
That was a frequent complaint from Congress to Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, former DHS Secretary Janet A. Napolitano, who left the office last September.
Mr. Johnson has promised to be more responsive, saying he will answer lawmakers’ questions and try to get them information.
“Better information may not be the way to reach consensus on every question of border and immigration enforcement policy, but it would help us. It would elevate the discussion to one based on empirical evidence and agreed-upon data,” said Rep. David Price, North Carolina Democrat.
The Senate last year passed a broad immigration bill legalizing most illegal immigrants, boosting border security spending by tens of billions of dollars and rewriting the legal immigration system.
But House Republicans have balked, arguing they don’t trust Mr. Obama to enforce the laws — and they point to his carving up of deportation policy as one example.
Mr. Johnson, though, countered that passing a legalization bill would actually enhance security because it would get illegal immigrants to come forward and report, and would allow the department to more narrowly focus its resources.
In one key step, the Obama administration this year is calling for a cut in detention beds that hold immigrants awaiting deportation, from the 34,000 level mandated by law to slightly more than 30,500.
“We believe that is not the best and highest use of our resources, given our current estimates of who we need to detain, who we regard as public safety, national security, border security threats,” Mr. Johnson said.
Homeland Security officials argue that rather than holding illegal immigrants in detention facilities, they can be given supervised release, which he said is more cost-effective.