Despite the fact that the Obama administration has deported more people than any other president in U.S. history, in 2015 the number of deportations conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reached a low not seen in many years. Some believe the drop was the result of more targeted ICE priorities, while others contend the decrease in deportations had a more organic cause – namely, lower numbers of undocumented immigrants attempting to enter the United States.
ICE set a record high for deportations in fiscal year 2012, according to then-agency director John T. Morton, who said 409,849 undocumented immigrants had been removed that year. The number highlighted the emphasis that the federal government had placed on illegal immigration since the 9/11 attacks. Deportations dropped to 368,644 in 2013, then declined further to 315,943 the following year.
As reported by ICE, in fiscal year 2015 the agency deported 235,413 people – a marked decrease from prior years, but still much higher than during previous decades. By way of comparison, the number of deportations in the 1990s rarely topped 20,000 annually.
More people are detained each year by immigration officials than are incarcerated by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. The combined budgets of federal immigration agencies – roughly $18 billion annually – are greater than those of the FBI, DEA, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service and ATF combined.
ICE has been the subject of criticism by immigrant rights advocates who have complained about erratic, heavy-handed and selective enforcement efforts that often sweep up “illegals” stopped for traffic violations or other minor offenses, detain them in unmarked sub-offices and then transfer them to prison-like facilities before they are deported. In some cases, U.S. citizens are expatriated by mistake. [See: PLN, April 2013, p.1; March 2013, p.40].
ICE claims to have revised its deportation priorities, pointing to the 225,390 undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions who were removed in FY 2012. Then again, some of those convictions were for traffic violations and others were for repeatedly entering the U.S. illegally, not for serious or violent crimes.
Nonetheless, Director Morton and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS, ICE’s parent organization) said they had redirected their resources to concentrate on removing dangerous criminals, and issued new detainer guidelines for law enforcement agencies. The new policy states ICE will concentrate on apprehending felons and repeat offenders, though local jurisdictions are not required to honor ICE detainers that are not issued by a judge. [See: PLN, Nov. 2016, p.8].
The asserted shift in priorities appears to be borne out in the 2015 deportation data. According to ICE, 59% of all immigrants removed that fiscal year had been “previously convicted of a crime.” Again, however, some of those convictions were for traffic offenses and immigration violations.
In another nod to immigrant rights groups, ICE has decided not to renew its agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies that operate 287(g) programs, an even greater source of past abuses. Such programs involve local law enforcement officials in ICE removal operations, effectively recruiting police and sheriff’s personnel to help enforce federal immigration laws.
As part of its shift in strategy, ICE also cited Operation Cross Check, which targets immigrants with criminal records, as well as heightened cooperation with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to remove recent border crossers. ICE pointed to the continued flow of undocumented immigrants and illegal drug smuggling that occurs along the southwestern U.S. border as proof that more work needs to be done in those areas.
ICE’s change in priorities is likely not the sole driver behind the decreasing number of deportations since FY 2012. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, in a December 2015 statement, said that while the reprioritization has had some impact, the number of people apprehended while attempting to illegally cross the border has dropped to the second-lowest level since 1972.
That trend has had a significant impact on ICE’s deportation numbers. Of the 235,413 undocumented immigrants removed by ICE in FY 2015, approximately 165,000 were apprehended by CBP at or near the border.
Despite the downward trend in deportations, ICE continues to be the target of criticism due to its detention practices and conditions of detention confinement – particularly its privately-operated “family residential” centers that hold women and children. [See: PLN, Sept. 2016, p.40].
Hopefully, ICE’s new immigration enforcement priorities will be less likely to cause human suffering, family separation and hardship for undocumented immigrants whose only crime is, often, trying to find a better life for themselves and their families. Of course that depends on what happens during the Trump administration, given that president-elect Donald Trump has said he plans to deport, at a minimum, 2-3 million undocumented immigrants with criminal records.
Sources: www.ice.gov, www.migrationpolicy.org, www.immigrationimpact.com, www.npr.org, www.abcnews.go.com
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