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Removals, Returns, and the Deporter-in-Chief

In the past few months, President Barack Obama has often been derided by many on the left as the “Deporter-in-Chief”. They say he’s deported more non-citizens than George W. Bush, nearly 2 million, and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is zealously hunting down longtime, law abiding residents who have families and jobs in the United States. Meanwhile, the right, and specifically House Republicans, have called the President soft on immigration. They say he isn’t enforcing the law adequately, that deportations are actually decreasing, and therefore can’t be trusted to implement reform.

Then, who’s right? Well, both are, depending on how you define deportation and add up the numbers.

There are two types of deportations: returns and removals. Returns are less serious and more informal. An individual who is “returned” will have no permanent trace of her record and will be able to re-enter the United States legally. Removals, on the hand, are more formal deportations issued by a judge or an officer and they bar the person from entering the United States legally for at least 5 years. Individuals are fingerprinted and the removal becomes part of the permanent record.

Returns used to be more common. Individuals who were apprehended close to the border were usually put on a bus back to Mexico or sent back to their home country. During the Bush administration, between 2001 and 2008, over 8.3 million people were returned while only 2 million people were removed. Towards the end of his term, Bush and the Department of Homeland Security shifted their priorities away from informal returns and towards removals, hoping to deter future illegal border crossings.

When Obama took office, he continued what Bush had started and focused more on removals, rather than returns. Meanwhile, in 2010 Congress increased spending on border security. All of this has led to more money and resources directed towards border enforcement, with an emphasis on apprehending and deporting border crossers. In fact, the increase of deportations under Obama is due to removals within 100 miles of the border.

While removals near the border have gone up, interior removals under Obama have actually decreased. As the LA Times notes, “Expulsions of people who are settled and working in the United States have fallen steadily since his first year in office, and are down more than 40% since 2009” and “four out of five of those deportees came to the attention of immigration authorities after criminal convictions”. However, many of those criminal convictions are actually for immigration offenses, like crossing the border illegally, which aren’t really crimes.

So, oth sides are right. Deportations have increased in some places and decreased in others. Many of those deported have criminal convictions. But immigration violations aren’t actually considered crimes.

In conclusion, it’s still complicated.