Deportation by the Numbers

Some have taken to calling Obama the “deporter-in-chief.” At the same time, John Boehner says that Obama cant be trusted to enforce immigration laws. While being attacked from both left and right is just a day in the life for a centrist politician, the numbers behind both accusations merit a look.

To start, we might reconsider our use of the term “deportation.” Homeland Security employs two more precise terms in its place: “return” and “removal.” A “return” is the confirmed departure of a “deportable” alien from the US. A “removal” is a return subject to a court order, often with sanctions attached, which are triggered if the individual attempts to reenter. Returns are the more benign of the two, allowing an alien to reenter without any special consequences. Removals however can subject an alien to prison and other penalties if they try to come back.

And so it might surprise liberals to learn that Obama can be fairly dubbed the “remover-in-chief,” since his administration has eschewed “returns” for harsher “removals.” This trend began under Clinton. Looking at statistics going back to 1892, removals never exceeded 40,000 per year, and were often less than 10,000. But under Clinton, they more than quadrupled, reaching 188,000 in his last full year in office (2000).

Returns have been much more variable since measurement began in 1927. Under 10,000 per year for most of WWII, they surged past 1 million in 1954, only to fall beneath 100,000 for the decade after. Starting in 1970, returns began a steady climb, again reaching 1 million in 1985, 1.5 million in 1996, and hitting an all-time high of 1.675 million in 2000. Clinton might fairly be called the “returner-in-chief.”

Bush Duh paradoxically oversaw a halving of returns, but a doubling of removals. By his last full year (2008), removals had risen to an all time high of 360,000 – while returns had fallen to a 30 year low of 811,000. Under Obama, this trend continues, with removals reaching nearly 420,000 in 2012; and returns falling to 230,000, their lowest level since 1968.

Looking at the big picture, removals have increased almost every year since 1984, and returns have declined almost every year since 2000. It’s worth noting that definitions of “return” and “removal” have changed over time, and have recently been a source of controversy – though no matter the interpretation, the overall trends remain.

To get an idea about how very different is Obama’s approach to immigration enforcement, consider that in 2011 and 2012 removals exceeded returns for the first time since 1941. And not all returns are equal. While the Obama administration has had far fewer than any recent administration, qualitatively, those returns tend to be much harsher. Obama has ramped up an especially nasty return program (ATEP), which transports Mexicans caught at the border to places thousands of miles from their entry point, to both impose an effective penalty, and to make reentry that much more difficult. This measure is controversial because people subject to it are vulnerable to crime and official corruption, both of which are rampant in poor border towns. Another program, MIRP, is similar in practice and effect. Alone and without resources, even if they manage to avoid drug traffickers, common criminals and corrupt cops, deportees face significant hardship in returning home. (N.b. Obama has started classifying ATEP returns as removals – also amid some controversy.)

The Obama administration’s record on immigration enforcement is mixed – liberal in some respects, harsh in others. More people are caught along the southern border than ever before, and those caught are now more severely treated. But if they succeed in getting inside the country, undocumented aliens are now much less likely to be returned or removed, and can live and work in relative security. Some of these policies are consistent with the US interest in tighter border security – though at 2000 miles in length, the southern border is not going to be secure any time soon. All tolled, a greater share of federal police resources are now expended toward immigration than any other objective, including drug enforcement.

One must appreciate Obama’s decisions in light of the fact that existing laws were not written to deal with the reality of 12 million undocumented aliens – roughly 4% of the US population. Obama is rightly questioned over his emphasis on removals, and his use of ATEP and MIRP; however his decision to back off on returns is reasonable, given that the administrative tools available to the executive are simply inadequate for the present situation. The country desperately needs a legislative solution – which doesnt seem likely to come in the near future.



the data since 1892:

most comprehensive report:

other fun stuff:











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