With the Obama administration deporting immigrants who have entered the country illegally at a record pace, President Obama has said the government is going after “criminals, gangbangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they’re trying to figure out how to feed their families.”
But a New York Times analysis of internal government records shows that since Obama took office, two-thirds of the nearly 2 million deportation cases involve people who had committed minor infractions, including traffic violations, or had no criminal record at all. Twenty percent – or about 394,000 – of the cases involved people convicted of serious crimes, including drug-related offense, the records show.
Obama came to office promising comprehensive immigration reform, but lacking sufficient support, the administration took steps it portrayed as narrowing the focus of enforcement efforts on serious criminals. Yet the records show that the enforcement net actually grew, picking up more and more immigrants with minor or no criminal records.
Interviews with current and former administration officials, as well as immigrant advocates, portray a president trying to keep his supporters in line even as he sought to show political opponents that he would be tough on people who had broken the law by entering the country illegally.
Five years into his presidency, neither side is satisfied.
“It would have been better for the administration to state its enforcement intentions clearly and stand by them, rather than being willing to lean whichever way seemed politically expedient at any given moment,” said David Martin, the deputy general counsel at the Department of Homeland Security until December 2010. “They lost credibility on enforcement, despite all the deportations, while letting activists think they could always get another concession if they just blamed Obama. It was a pipe dream to think they could make everyone happy.”
Various studies of court records and anecdotal reports in the past few years have raised questions about who is being deported by immigration officials. The Times analysis is based on government data covering more than 3.2 million deportations over 10 years, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, and provides a more detailed portrait of the deportations carried out under Obama.
The records show the largest increases were in deportations involving immigrants whose most serious offense was listed as a traffic violation, including driving under the influence. Those cases more than quadrupled from 43,000 during the last five years of the Bush administration to 193,000 during the five years Obama has been in office. In that same period, removals related to convictions for entering or re-entering the country illegally tripled under Obama to more than 188,000.
“For years, the Obama administration’s spin has been that they are simply deporting so-called ‘criminal aliens,’ but the numbers speak for themselves,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. “In truth, this administration – more than any other _ has devastated immigrant communities across the country, tearing families away from loved ones, simply because they drove without a license, or re-entered the country desperately trying to be reunited with their family members.”
Administration officials say the deportations are the result of a decade in which Congress has passed tougher immigration laws, increased funding for enforcement and stymied efforts to lay out a path to legal residency for the bulk of the nation’s 11.5 million immigrants here illegally.
“The president is concerned about the human cost of separating families,” said Cecilia Muñoz, the White House domestic policy adviser. “But it’s also true that you can’t just flip a switch and make it stop.”
In the spring of 2012, Obama announced a way for immigrants who came to the U.S. as children – so-called “Dreamers” – to avoid deportation. Facing a new wave of protests, he announced two weeks ago a review of the administration’s deportation programs in an effort to make them “more humane.”
Republicans immediately pushed back, warning that the changes he had already made had weakened enforcement. And while immigrant advocates and some leading Democrats are outraged by the administration’s policy of criminalizing illegal entry at the border, many Republicans have accused the administration of using those cases to inflate its deportation numbers.
“The administration has carried out a dramatic nullification of federal law,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. “Under the guise of setting ‘priorities’, the administration has determined that almost anyone in the world who can enter the United States is free to illegally live, work and claim benefits here as long as they are not caught committing a felony or other serious crime.”
In places such as Painesville, Ohio, a small town on the shore of Lake Erie sustained for decades by immigrants who work in greenhouses and factories, the spate of deportations has been felt one person at a time.
Anabel Barron, who has lived in the U.S. for nearly two decades, was facing deportation after being stopped for speeding and driving without a license. Her record showed that she had been removed previously and she said she returned to be with her four U.S.-born children.
At a regular Tuesday night meeting of immigrants at a converted church, she was fretting about her upcoming hearing. “I am afraid of being deported,” she said. “But for my children, it’s worse. They don’t sleep the same. They don’t eat. They don’t want to go to school because they are afraid I am not going to be there when they get home.”
Like President George W. Bush, both Obama and his first Department of Homeland Security secretary, former Arizona Gov. Janet A. Napolitano, believed that to win comprehensive reform, they needed to demonstrate a commitment to enforcing existing laws. The Obama administration set out to keep deportation numbers up, but to make enforcement “smarter.”
Immigration officials set a goal of 400,000 deportations a year – a number that was scrawled on a whiteboard at their Washington headquarters. The agency deployed more agents to the border, according to several former immigration officials, where finding and removing immigrants in the country without permission is legally and politically easier.
The issue of deportations has reached the White House repeatedly, turning immigration into a contentious issue between Obama and the Hispanic and Asian communities that are a critical part of his political base.
“We assumed that a Democratic president who wanted to move immigration reform would not pursue a strategy of deporting the people who he was intent on legalizing,” said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change. “That was a totally wrong assumption. And there is a lot of anger about that.”