Deportations and their Role in Immigration Policy

 /  April 27, 2014, 2:55 p.m.


President Obama’s platform for immigration reform includes strengthening border security, creating a path to citizenship, and streamlining the legal immigration system. However, recent charges by Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza, coupled with a study released by the New York Times have called into question the focus and effectiveness of Obama’s immigration policy.

Murguía accused Obama, whom she called the “deporter-in-chief,” of failing to cut back on “unnecessary” deportations. Similarly, the Times’ study found that the largest increases in deportations involved immigrants whose most serious offenses were traffic violations, including driving under the influence (DUI). The last five years of the Bush administration saw 43,000 of these kinds of deportations, while the five years of Obama’s presidency have seen 193,000.

This increase in deportations suggests that Obama’s immigration policy has had a counterproductive focus, neglecting the process of building up infrastructure – a path to citizenship, an accessible avenue for legal immigration – necessary to strengthen an immigrant society. Indeed, the most alarming piece of information provided by the Times study and confirmed by independent data at Syracuse’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) is the offenses with the largest share of total deportations in fiscal year 2013. The top three categories were illegal entry (technically a petty misdemeanor under US law), DUI, and unspecified traffic offenses. What does this all mean? A closer examination of data released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and TRAC can help to cut through the political crosstalk and understand the impacts of Obama’s deportation policy.

First, according to its official report for fiscal year 2013, 133,000 of the ICE’s 368,000 total removals were interior (i.e. non-border) deportations. The other 235,000 were border removals: individuals apprehended while attempting to enter the US unlawfully. Interior deportations are those upon which Murguía and other immigrant activists found their claims that the government focuses on the wrong deportations. The ICE reports that 95 percent of the roughly 152,000 deportations of individuals without criminal convictions were border removals, recent border crossers, fugitives from immigration courts, or repeated immigration violators. This means that fewer than ten thousand deportation cases were classified as “other removals:” individuals without a criminal conviction, recent border crossing, or other high-priority violation. This constitutes less than three percent of total deportations in fiscal year 2013. “Other removals” do not appear to be a major target for the Obama administration, though the unspecified nature of these deportations might still be a reasonable cause for alarm.

Second, the ICE data is limited because it groups deportations of “convicted criminals” into three categories: Level 1 (“aggravated” felonies), Level 2 (non-aggravated felonies or three or more misdemeanors), and Level 3 (misdemeanors). Again, the least-severe violators have attracted the attention of advocacy groups because a wide variety of crimes are categorized as misdemeanors. Twenty-eight percent of interior removals in 2013 were low-priority Level 3 violators, constituting just under 31,000 deportations. According to TRAC, the most-frequent offenses for which individuals were deported were immigration, DUI, “traffic offenses,” and marijuana possession.

These deportation-causing violations are, for the most part, misdemeanors. DUI offenses can result in felony charges, and the listing of nearly 30,000 DUI offenses in the TRAC data indicate that at least some of the DUI deportations were felonies. However, the focus of advocacy groups has been the fact that an inordinately large number of deportations have resulted from “minor offenses.” Some news outlets have reported that speeding tickets, traffic violations, and other minor infractions have accounted for at least half of deportations.

This statistic, though widely-cited, is based on multiple misreadings of the data. First, crossing the border illegally technically counts as a petty misdemeanor or “minor infraction.” Second, not all traffic violations count as misdemeanors – the charge of deportations based on speeding tickets is largely inaccurate because speeding tickets only count as civil infractions. Traffic crimes include driving without a license and DUI. The ICE’s official report distinguishes civil traffic offenders from criminal offenders, so civil traffic offenses are not included in accounts of deportations for Level 3 criminal convictions. Statements that large numbers of immigrants are being deported for infractions as harmless as speeding tickets are inflated, but they do call attention to an important question in immigration policy: who should be the targets of deportations? Who, under the ICE’s prioritization protocol, should count as “dangerous criminals”?

By and large, the ICE seems to have a solid understanding of which criminals should be prioritized for deportation: 48 percent of interior removals in 2013 were Level 1 offenders. Figures favoring the “deporter-in-chief” criticism come, to a great extent, from the classification of illegal entry as a petty misdemeanor. These figures have skyrocketed in recent years following from President Obama’s prioritization of border security. As the administration fairly points out, border security is essential to the function of our immigration system. The controversy over internal deportations, though, calls attention to the fact that immigration reform in America needs to be a multifaceted process—one that the current political climate has prohibited.

Republican leaders and legislators are deeply skeptical of immigration overhaul, as evidenced by the stalling of a reform bill in the House. They pushed back against the Dream Act, arguing that Obama’s shift in focus to the border has resulted in a decline in removals from the interior and has allowed people to continue to live illegally within the country. In order to appeal to Republicans enough to pass any immigration reform, the President has needed to increase interior deportations. Furthermore, the ICE maintains a goal of 400,000 deportations per year.  In order to make the quota, internal deportations must supplement border removals. Quotas force the ICE to cast a wide net for apprehension and enforcement.

In contrast to the emphasis on increased deportations, there has been little progress on comprehensive immigration reform. The ICE has limited resources and can only do so much to improve the current immigration system if it devotes itself to reaching its yearly deportation quota. This focus is a self-perpetuating problem: by focusing on deportations, the ICE limits its capacity to develop a path to citizenship or streamline legal immigration, creating more incentives for illegal immigrants to remain in the shadows, increasing the group of deportable aliens, ad nauseam.

While rhetoric of the “deporter-in-chief” variety seems somewhat unfounded given the limited scope of deportations of minor offenders, it does call attention to the fact that true immigration reform needs to be comprehensive. A path to citizenship can help responsible and well-meaning illegal immigrants remain in the country and keep social fabrics stable. A streamlined legal immigration process can make America more accessible through legitimate means. Casting a wider and wider net across the country to meet a deportation quota solves little. Immigration reform needs to be a bipartisan process that addresses national and community security needs while letting individuals contribute positively to American society. A more supportive political climate is necessary to a healthy immigration culture, as is a thorough understanding of the policy status quo.

Dana Scott