Deportations have plummeted by another 25 percent so far this year, with the government even struggling to find enough criminals to kick out of the country, according to the latest statistics that suggest President Obama’s amnesty has hampered removal efforts.
That could undercut Mr. Obama’s legal justification for the deportation amnesty, where the pace of deportations has been raised as a key way of judging whether the president is complying with the law by trying to grant “deferred action” to millions of illegal immigrants.
The numbers for the first six months of fiscal year 2015, which began Oct. 1, are striking: The government has deported just 117,181 immigrants, which is just three-quarters of the 157,365 immigrations kicked out during that same period a year earlier, according to figures provided to Congress.
“This is a stunning free fall in enforcement activity, not just deportations but arrests too,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports stricter immigration limits. “It turns out that even criminal arrests and deportations have dropped, including those of the ‘worst of the worst’ Level 1 felons, and the huge numbers of criminal releases continues.”
Overall, deportations are down a stunning 41 percent in the last three years — and the drop began almost exactly at the beginning of Mr. Obama’s 2012 temporary deportation amnesty for so-called Dreamers.
That program, which granted two-year legal status and work permits to young adult illegal immigrants, was followed up late last year with an expanded amnesty granting legal status and work permits to illegal immigrant parents with children who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.
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The president said his policies were designed to ensure his agents are targeting “felons, not families” for enforcement, but the numbers suggest he’s fallen short on finding the felons as well. Through April 4, 2015, the government had kicked out about 68,000 criminals, down 30 percent from the approximately 96,500 criminals deported during the same period a year earlier.
Gillian Christensen, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which handles deportations, said there is a host of reasons why deportations have dropped, including the changing demographics of illegal immigration away from Mexicans and toward Central Americans, who are most costly to hold and deport.
“Removals of non-Mexican nationals require additional detention capacity, efforts to secure travel documents from the host country and the arrangement of air transportation. As a result, more time, officer resources and funding are required to complete the removal process for nationals from Central America and other noncontiguous countries as compared to Mexican nationals apprehended at the border,” she said.
Ms. Christensen also said her agency has been stymied by the more than 200 states, cities and counties that have passed laws and ordinances preventing police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities. ICE counts thousands of immigrants that localities have refused to hold for ICE agents to come pick up.
“When laws and ordinances are passed limiting the use of detainers, ICE must expend additional staff and resources to develop and execute operations to locate and arrest convicted criminals at large,” she said.
ICE caved to local pressure and, as part of Mr. Obama’s new November amnesty, scrapped its program that asked locales to hold illegal immigrants for pickup once they’ve cleared processing. Many of those municipalities had said they believed it was unconstitutional for them to hold people on immigration charges.
ICE is developing a replacement program that asks jails and prisons to at least alert ICE ahead of releasing someone so that agents can be on hand to collect the immigrants once local officials are done with them.
But Ms. Christensen said even as deportations have dropped, her agency has kept the ratio of criminals within the deportee population high — rising to 85 percent of immigrants kicked out of the U.S. interior in 2014.
Homeland Security and ICE officials have said they are budgeted to deport about 400,000 people a year, but they are on pace to deport less than 250,000 in fiscal year 2015.
The pace of removals could play a role in the court case over Mr. Obama’s amnesty.
During oral arguments in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week, Judge Stephen Higginson, an Obama appointee to the court, said record deportations were a signal that the administration was showing proper discretion rather than abdicating its law enforcement duties, as Texas and other states challenging the amnesty have argued.
Judge Higginson said he detected an “alacrity to remove” illegal immigrants, which he said boosted the government’s case.
He also raised the possibility that the amnesty was a way to identify illegal immigrants for future deportation, which would mean it is actually an enforcement program.
“We are getting the benefit of fugitives now telling us where they are, and admitting they’re here unlawfully,” he said.
Ms. Vaughan scoffed at that, saying the administration has never argued it intends to use its databases to eventually round up and deport illegal immigrants. Indeed, Mr. Obama has said publicly that he doubts any future president would be politically able to reverse his policies and begin deporting illegal immigrants approved for his program.
As it struggles to find immigrants to deport, ICE has left thousands of detention beds unfilled every day.
Congress has required the agency to have 34,000 beds at the ready every day, but through early April ICE was filling an average of about 27,400 beds per day — sparking a row with Capitol Hill, where lawmakers said they felt the president was ignoring Congress’s intent.
“We want you to use 34,000 beds,” said Rep. John Abney Culberson, Texas Republican, at a hearing earlier this month.
ICE Director Sarah Saldana replied that her agents are in the field trying to round folks up.
“We’re working to use them,” she said, though she said it’s not a blind goal. “The sole purpose and goal is not to fill a bed, it’s to fill it in the right way.”