Deportation Unlikely for Typical Undocumented Immigrant

Despite improvements in border security and targeted deportations, support is lacking in Congress to pass immigration reform bill.
By Gary Feuerberg
Gary Feuerberg
Gary Feuerberg
April 29, 2014 Updated: April 28, 2014

WASHINGTON—As Congress dithers on passing comprehensive immigration reform, immigration and enforcement and border control are changing dramatically, according to experts who follow the deportation numbers and trends. Persons deported (“removed” is the official term) are much more likely to be caught and handled at the border, while an unauthorized immigrant caught in the interior, without a criminal record, is today almost certain not to be deported. 

The border is also more secure. Before its peak in 2001, 770,000 annually crossed a porous Mexican border to the United States. The net migration today is zero. Of course, the poor U.S. economy and relatively good economy in Mexico also have something to do with the decision to immigrate.

The Obama administration has moved to a high-priority system of deportations. According to the FY 2013 ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) report, most of those deported in 2013 were people caught at the border attempting to enter the country or were convicted criminals. 

But the advocates of comprehensive immigration reform are in denial of the positive changes, from their perspective. Likewise, Republican Congress members who oppose any kind of immigration reform are in denial of the improved border security. Both sides seem unaware of the new facts on the ground.

“The issue what is really happening with border immigration enforcement is really the single most important topic in the debate on comprehensive immigration reform in Washington right now,” said Simon Rosenberg, founder and president of NDN, a think-tank and advocacy organization. 

Rosenberg was host to a panel discussion of immigration experts across the political spectrum, who discussed the ICE data and the Obama Administration’s enforcement record using the latest data. He declared that the president “deserves far more credit” than he’s getting for improvements in immigration enforcement by concentrating it at the border and targeting convicted criminals. 

Tamar Jacoby, President and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA, disagreed with the plaudits that Rosenberg bestowed on the president’s handling of immigration enforcement. She said that the president “is taking the line, ‘the law doesn’t matter, I am going to do what I want to do.’ The president calls it the pen and the phone; Republicans call it overreach and the imperial presidency. And it’s not just immigration.”

Jacoby said Obama doesn’t appear trustworthy to them. Fixing immigration requires Congress to pass legislation and “Obama can’t do it alone.”


Marc Rosenblum, Deputy Director of the US Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, said the deportation system has changed in the past decades from one where it was mostly an informal process to a formal process. 

Before 1995, 95 percent of the time the undocumented person was put on a bus or a plane and sent back home. Last year, two-thirds of those deported went through a formal process, which has more long-term consequences for the individual, such as being made ineligible for a visit for at least five years. Later, if he is apprehended in the country, the person could be subject to criminal charges. 

“This is a big change,” said Rosenblum. While the number of deportations is down, the number of formal removals is way up. 

Of these formal removals, before 1995, nearly all those apprehended (97 percent) went before a judge, who would exercise discretion. Now, with DHS handling the formal removals, only 25 percent of individuals go before a judge. Non-judicial review is the norm now.

A third trend is that many more unauthorized immigrants, “who are apprehended at the border are being charged with immigration-related criminal offenses.”

In the past, crossing the border was very rarely prosecuted. In 1997, about one percent faced criminal charges. Last year, the number was 25 percent, said Rosenblum. The ICE data shows that border removals increased from 134,451 in FY2008 to 235,093 in FY 2013.

Jacoby welcomed the change from informal to formal treatment of violators of the border crossing. A person caught the first time, after being fingerprinted and sent back, will think much more seriously about trying again, she said. 

Thus, two immigration enforcement systems are in place now: for the border and the interior of the United States. If you’re caught at the border, authorities are tough on the undocumented. On the other hand, if the undocumented is found in the interior, the individual is not likely to face serious consequences. Of the 368,644 removals in 2013, only 2.8 percent or 10,336 individuals were deported, who were not convicted criminals, repeat immigration violators, immigration fugitives, or border removals.

A NDN backgrounder using ICE data, stated that 59 percent of unauthorized immigrants deported had a criminal conviction (up from 35 percent in 2009), and about two-thirds were removed at the border.

Apprehensions ‘Down Dramatically

The greater security at the border and more willingness to apply criminal charges has had a profound deterrent effect on people considering crossing the border illegally, according to Edward Alden, from the Council of Foreign Relations. The numbers of people caught crossing the border over the years can serve as a proxy for the relative number of illegal entrants. 

In 2000, 1.6 million persons were apprehended on the southwest border, a record high. The lowest number caught since 1971 was 327,000 in 2011. That is “down dramatically,” Adler said, and “suggests that the border is under far more control than in a decade.”

The small number of entries has allowed the border patrol to get a lot tougher on who they do arrest. “The problem for the administration with the apprehensions number is that the number has started to tic back up in the last couple of years.” The economy has gotten stronger is probably one reason. The number now is a little more than 400,000, most of whom are coming from Central America.

“It makes it harder for the administration to tell the story of consistent progress it wants to tell,” Alden said. 

The controversy concerning immigration reforms stems in part from the lack of good measures for immigration enforcement, Adler said. 

“The administration has done a poor job in gathering and explaining the evidence that can demonstrate the progress it has made.”

Drop in Deportations

After 2011, the administration began to apply more aggressively a “policy of prosecutorial discretion,” wrote Julia Preston, who covers immigration for the New York Times. The aim is to have fewer deportations of illegal immigrants who had no criminal record. Last year, with 187,678 deportation cases, DHS had nearly 50,000 fewer than in 2011.

Judges have become more lenient with undocumented immigrants. About one-third of them were allowed to stay in 2013. In 2009, only one-fifth were allowed to stay.

Since 2009, new deportation cases in the immigration courts have been steadily declining. There’s been “a 43 percent drop in the number of deportations through the courts in the last five years,” Preston wrote, based on Justice Department data.

These court-ordered deportations are only a portion of the total deportations, but they did contribute to a decline in the overall deportations last year.

Future Prospects

Rosenberg said that the opposition to the president’s policies from the pro-immigrant community is making it more difficult for the president to negotiate with the Republican leadership in getting a comprehensive immigration bill passed this year. 

While he faults Republicans too, the main purpose of the panel discussion was to clear up the mischaracterization of Obama, as “Deporter-in-Chief,” which he says is hampering the prospects for a comprehensive immigration bill this year.