On the evening of March 13, President Barack Obama met with three House Democrats in the Oval Office to calm a brewing storm. Reps. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, had one message for their leader: Take action to curb record-high deportations.
With immigration reform stalled in the House, immigrant rights groups who have supported Obama are increasingly voicing their displeasure with him—similar to the way unions have turned on the president over Obamacare. “For us, this president has been the deporter in chief,” said Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza, in a March 4 speech. Congressman Gutierrez took to the House floor to assail Obama’s statistics, saying he “has deported more people than those that live in the entire state of Nebraska” and spends more on immigration enforcement than all other criminal federal law enforcement combined.
The pressure is having an effect: In his meeting with House Democrats, Obama said he’s ordered Jeh Johnson, head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to carry out a review of deportation practices in hopes of conducting “enforcement more humanely within the confines of the law.” Obama also invited Murguía and other activists to the White House on March 14 in an effort to quell the rebellion.
Is the criticism warranted? It’s true that Obama has deported nearly 2 million people, and by the end of this year he will eclipse former President George W. Bush’s record total of 2.01 million deportations in eight years. But not all deportations are created equal, and even though interior removal numbers are still high compared to historic norms, Republicans accuse the administration of using border apprehensions to skew the total numbers.
“They’re inflating the numbers by counting the people at the border,” Rep. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, the House GOP’s lead immigration expert, told me. “They were doing that to, again, deceive the American people.”
A look at the data does reveal a sharp decrease in interior deportations as a percentage of total removals (see graph). That’s largely because Customs and Border Protection is putting more illegal immigrants through administrative and court proceedings with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—a response to critics who for years said too many immigrants were simply returned with no consequences. Thus, ICE, whose annual budget has dropped from $5.9 to $5.6 billion since 2009, has fewer resources devoted to interior enforcement.
The administration says it is focused on deporting criminals, a claim the data support: The percentage of criminal deportations has nearly doubled since 2008, from 31 percent to 59 percent in 2013.
Matt Graham, part of the Immigration Task Force at the Bipartisan Policy Center, told me the numbers are the result of enforcement priorities. He said it’s not accurate to say Obama has separated 2 million families, but it’s also not accurate to say he’s wholly disregarding the law.
Obama has repeatedly said his hands are tied when it comes to stopping deportations, but the DHS review may signal a shift. Labrador, who cited a lack of trust in Obama as the reason Republicans won’t negotiate on immigration reform, said it would be a “grave mistake” if the president decided to stop enforcing the law: “The American people are not going to stand for any more lawlessness.”