Wall Street Journal
By Laura Meckler
April 29, 2014
WASHINGTON—A new report on deportations under the Obama administration paints a picture of two different approaches: a strict, "zero tolerance" policy at the U.S. border, where deportations are rising, and selective removals from the interior of the U.S., where deportations have fallen.
The number of formal removals at the border has risen every year under President Barack Obama. At the same time, deportations from the U.S.'s interior have fallen for five consecutive years.
This dichotomy is rarely recognized by combatants on either side of the immigration debate. Immigration advocates staging round-the-clock protests focus on the overall figures, which have hit a record, and they denounce Mr. Obama as the "deporter-in-chief." Conservatives say Mr. Obama is too soft on people living in the U.S. illegally but say little about stepped-up border enforcement.
The administration is "really trying to thread the needle," said Marc Rosenblum, author of the report released on Tuesday by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. "They're trying to be tough on enforcement, and to be humane and minimize the harm done to settled immigrant communities, and it's pretty hard to do both."
The report comes as the Obama administration reviews its deportation policy with an eye toward whether officials can enforce the law more "humanely."
Overall, the U.S. is now deporting many more people every year than it once did. Nearly two million people were deported during the first five years of the Obama administration, equal to eight years under President George W. Bush. Since 1996, when Congress last passed major immigration legislation, the U.S. has deported 4.5 million people, the report said, with annual totals rising steadily over time.
The report attributes the rise to new laws expanding the grounds for removal and speeding the deportation process, sizable increases in enforcement budgets and policy decisions by the last three administrations.
But it explains that the enforcement landscape is very different at the border compared with the interior.
Most of the complaints about the Obama deportation policy focus on people in the interior of the country who are separated from their families, sometimes after encountering law enforcement in connection with something as minor as a broken taillight.
But total deportations from the interior have steadily fallen to about 133,500 in fiscal year 2013 from about 238,000 in 2009.
The report concluded that the administration is applying its stated priorities for enforcement, and said most of the people deported have criminal convictions or, increasingly, prior immigration offenses.
Both of those are considered priorities for removal under Obama policy, though the review under way is looking at whether a prior immigration offense should put someone on the priority list for deportation.
"On a systemic level, the great majority of the nearly two million people removed by the current administration during its first five years appear to fall into one or more of the DHS enforcement priority categories," the report found.
Some conservatives seized these statistics to argue that the Obama administration isn't deporting enough people.
"The evidence is beyond refute: enforcement has been dismantled," said Stephen Miller, a spokesman for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.). "Interior deportations have plummeted more than 40% since 2009, producing a surge in new illegal immigration that threatens Americans' wages."
At the border, there were about 235,000 deportations in 2013, up from about 135,000 in 2008.
That is partly because the Obama administration has continued a policy that delivers more severe "consequences" to people who attempt to cross illegally, compared with simply returning them to where they came from. Where a would-be crosser might have been simply turned back in years past, now he or she is put through formal deportation proceedings. That makes it a crime for the person to try again.
In 2005, 82% of nearly 1.2 million people apprehended at the Southwest border were allowed to voluntarily return, the report said. In 2012, only 21% of about 357,000 people apprehended were given that chance.
Some advocates argue that the administration should offer leniency and even allow some illegal crossers to come into the country if they have lived here before and have strong family ties.
"The totality of somebody's equities should be considered," said Chris Newman of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, one of the leading groups pressuring the White House to ratchet back deportations.
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