The Obama administration says it is deporting a record number of criminals.
The truth, however, is more complicated — and the administration’s rhetoric may be influenced by the political tightrope it’s walking as it tries simultaneously to please Latinos and independent voters.
When outside researchers produced statistics showing the number of criminal deportations had declined, the reaction from U.S.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement was fierce. Susan Long at the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse was midway through a webinar for reporters when ICE emailed a statement calling the TRAC numbers “wildly misleading.”
TRAC reported, based on government filings in immigration court, that the number of deportees charged with crimes as opposed to immigration violations fell by 7,000, or 16.6 percent, from 2010 to 2011.
ICE responded that it doesn’t have to file criminal charges in immigration court. It only has to prove that someone is in the U.S. illegally. And it doesn’t have to tell anyone — including the judges who rule on deportation cases — about an immigrant’s criminal history unless that information will help its case.
Yet ICE brags in its own publications that a growing proportion of those it deports — and a majority in the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30 — are convicted criminals. This chart, based on a table in the 2010 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics and an Oct. 18 ICE news release, tells the official story.
The numbers suggest that the Obama administration is deporting an ever-growing number of criminal immigrants. They also indicate the administration is deporting fewer illegal immigrants who otherwise have abided by the law.
That’s official policy. In a memo on “prosecutorial discretion” last June, ICE Director John Morton ordered ICE attorneys and agents to target illegal immigrants with criminal records, particularly serious felons and gang members.
ICE agents and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Lamar Smith, R-Texas, have accused Morton and the Obama administration of running a “backdoor amnesty” program.
The numbers support the administration’s claim that it is cracking down: ICE deported 10.3 percent more people in 2011 than in 2008, the last full year of the George W. Bush administration, and double the total for 2001.
The numbers also appear to support the administration’s claim that it has shifted enforcement priorities from the pursuit of garden variety immigration violators — people who slip across the border or overstay a visa — to those who commit crimes once they arrive in the U.S.
But a closer look suggests that the administration is using an expansive definition of criminal, one that includes tens of thousands of petty offenders.
ICE categorizes criminal deportees two ways — by level and, to a limited extent, by offense. It categorizes every criminal deportee into one of three levels: Level 1 for serious felons who have been convicted of two or more felonies, particularly against persons; Level 2 for people who commit property crimes or three or more misdemeanors; and Level 3 for misdemeanors, and for driving under the influence and drug offenses.
In 2011, ICE deported 396,906 people. It said 216,6998 of them, 54.6 percent, had criminal records. ICE provided few details, but here’s what they did offer:
- By offense: 1,119 for homicide, 5,848 for sexual offenses, 44,653 for drugs and 35,927 for DUI; that leaves 129,151 criminals uncategorized.
- 34.7 percent were Level 1, or serious felons, with multiple raps, including crimes against persons.
- 21.4 percent were Level 2, which meant they had a felony or crime against property or three or more misdemeanors.
- 43.9 percent were Level 3, with a misdemeanor or DUI or drug offense.
Depending on how one reads the numbers, ICE deported 129,151 people for uncategorized crimes or 95,162 Level 3 offenders.
Here’s where it gets tricky. States decide whether a particular crime is a misdemeanor or a minor offense resolved by a citation and fine. ICE follows their lead, an agency spokeswoman said.
To Long, the TRAC researcher, this is dangerous territory: A ticket leading to a fine in one state could lead to a misdemeanor record and ultimately deportation in another state.
“In targeting practices, an agency has a great deal of discretion,” Long said. “But there are things they can’t do. We would all be appalled if they went after red-haired people.”