Opinion | All Presidents Are Deporters in Chief – The New York Times
20 hours ago – They all have to make hard choices about immigration. That doesn’t justify Donald Trump’s approach.
All Presidents Are Deporters in Chief
They all have to make hard choices about immigration. That doesn’t justify Donald Trump’s approach.
By The Editorial Board
The editorial board represents the opinions of the board, its editor and the publisher. It is separate from the newsroom and the Op-Ed section.
July 13, 2019
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
CreditCreditDrew Angerer/Getty Images
Every person who assumes the title of president of the United States also takes on the role of deporter in chief.
That’s because the office comes with the responsibility to enforce the nation’s laws — laws that require that the borders be secure and that some of the people who aren’t legally authorized to live here be deported, after being afforded due process.
Unless the law is changed, that shouldn’t be a provocative assertion, nor was it until recently. But inflamed passions over the country’s checkered yet proud tradition of immigration drove many complex truths — along with bipartisan consensus around reform of the immigration system — out of the national political debate.
The real question isn’t whether or not the president is the deporter in chief, a nickname immigrant rights advocates bestowed on President Barack Obama that has recently resurfaced in attacks on former Vice President Joe Biden.
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The more important question is what kind of deporter in chief a president chooses to be.
The definition of “deportation” is a complicated one, which makes comparing the policies of different presidential administrations imprecise and prone to politicization. Furthermore, levels of immigration — legal and illegal — vary greatly over time for a host of reasons, including economic conditions in the United States and the country of emigration, the time of year and the policies that various administrations have put in place.
The government uses two terms when it talks about deportations: removal and return. A “removal” refers to someone who has been issued a court order or directed by a border patrol agent to leave the country, while a “return” refers to someone who is released back across the border of Mexico or Canada — for instance — without receiving a formal order of removal.
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Summed together, those two numbers can be a measure of total deportations. But the total of the two categories obscures significant differences between the two procedures. Compulsory removal often means uprooting longtime residents who may have families and own property or businesses, and who are then barred from returning to the United States for a period of years. There is often no direct legal sanction for people who voluntarily choose to leave the country and are counted as “returned.”
In terms of total number of people, the high-water mark for deportations came in 2000 under President Bill Clinton, when more than 1,860,000 people left through a combination of removal and return. There were around nine people returned for every one person removed, according to a data set compiled by the Office of Immigration Statistics that attempted to harmonize returns and removals from the United States stretching back to 1927.
During the administration of George W. Bush, the number of people removed was far outpaced each year by the number of people returned. During his last year in office, nearly 360,000 people were removed and more than 810,000 people returned — or an average of one person removed for every two people returned.
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Under President Obama, the number of removals soared while the number of returned people declined. That change in the balance was driven by the administration’s emphasis on removals and also by the recession, which prompted fewer illegal crossings. Fewer crossings, fewer returns.
The peak number of compulsory removals came during Mr. Obama’s watch in 2013, when more than 432,000 people were removed. That same year, nearly 179,000 people were returned, a ratio of 2.4 people removed for every one person returned.
In addition to the deportations, Mr. Obama’s handling of the unauthorized immigrant population also included the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allowed hundreds of thousands of young people brought to the country illegally to avoid deportation and secure work permits. While Mr. Obama said that he supported comprehensive immigration reform, efforts to win support from Republicans in Congress were unsuccessful.
By the numbers, the last year of the Obama administration looked similar to the first year of the Trump administration. There were about three people removed for every one who was returned in 2016 and 2017, the last year for which this data is available.
Unlike his predecessors, President Trump — whose campaign was built on a foundation of outrage and exaggeration over the threat posed by immigrants — has embraced the role of chief deporter, with an apparent disregard for the human cost of his tough-strut policies.
While his government hasn’t yet forcibly removed many more people per year than did those of his predecessors, Mr. Trump has made everything that precedes an Immigration and Customs Enforcement knock at the door more frustrating and even dehumanizing.
Here’s how a recent Times report described an immigrant detention facility in Clint, Tex., that was built during the Obama administration but overfilled under Mr. Trump: “Outbreaks of scabies, shingles and chickenpox were spreading among the hundreds of children and adults who were being held in cramped cells, agents said. The stench of the children’s dirty clothing was so strong it spread to the agents’ own clothing — people in town would scrunch their noses when they left work. The children cried constantly. One girl seemed likely enough to try to kill herself that the agents made her sleep on a cot in front of them, so they could watch her as they were processing new arrivals.”
This week, Mr. Trump announced a new series of raids by ICE in at least 10 cities, aiming to arrest thousands of people who have been issued deportation orders.
“We’re focused on criminals,” Mr. Trump said on Friday, dodging the truth that his administration’s hard-line policies make little to no distinction between people who pose a genuine risk and those who miss an immigration court date.
The administration, for instance, publicly warned of collateral arrests as part of the new raids, threatening to detain other unauthorized immigrants who happen to be on the scene (children or other relatives, perhaps), even if they are not the main targets of the raids.
Publicity over the raids has rattled immigrant communities, as the administration clearly intended. For Mr. Trump, deterrence of illegal immigration has been a guiding principle — if not by means of a wall, then by means of cruelty toward migrants, from the squalid conditions in detainee facilities to separating children from their parents.
“It’s the complete, 100 percent focus on harsher options that will deter the influx, with a disregard for managing what’s happening,” a Department of Homeland Security official told The Times earlier this year. “We have a lot more families, a lot more unaccompanied children, and the focus has just been on how can we deter, rather than how can we handle.”
But deterrence alone can’t explain a slew of other moves — scaling back a program that protects the families of members of the military and veterans from being deported, for instance. It doesn’t explain the frantic — yet unsuccessful — effort to put a question about citizenship on the census, which experts agree would lead to an undercount of people in immigrant-heavy communities. Nor does deterrence explain removing deportation protections from nearly one million people who live in the country under the auspices of humanitarian programs or because they were brought to the country as children.
The Pew Research Center has estimated that there are 10.5 million people living in the United States without proper authorization, down from a peak of more than 12 million a decade ago. Long-term residents outnumber recent arrivals.
Polling over many years has found broad consensus among Americans that mass deportations of all unauthorized immigrants isn’t the answer. Americans want some immigration restrictions and more border security but not the construction of a border wall.
Despite the breadth of the political center, leaders of the two parties find themselves pushed to ever greater extremes on the issue. Calls to abolish ICE outright, which were a common refrain from Democrats last summer, appear to have faded. But immigration has been a centerpiece of the presidential primary campaign and will surely feature prominently in the race against an incumbent President Trump in 2020. Asked at a debate about decriminalizing illegal border crossings, nearly all the top-tier candidates indicated that they would support taking that step, which some have compared to the “federal equivalent of a parking ticket” and would do away with penalties like family separation and detention.
Jeh Johnson, who served as homeland security secretary in the Obama administration, warned recently that flirting with radical changes to the country’s immigration laws risked sending the wrong signal. “This is tantamount to a public declaration (repeated and amplified by smugglers in Central America) that our borders are effectively open to all; this will increase the recent levels of monthly apprehensions at our Southern border — about or more than 100,000 — by multiples,” Mr. Johnson wrote in The Washington Post.
Whichever Democrat ends up challenging Mr. Trump for the presidency would be right to call for fundamental change from the cruelties of the current administration. But as long as America wants to have secure borders, immigration will present painful trade-offs for any president. Some people will get in, others will be kept out, still others will be compelled to leave. Any meaningful effort to reform the country’s degrading approach to migrants will fall apart if it pretends a president can simply ignore such choices.
The next president has to be ready to assume the role of deporter in chief, and be able to specify who would be removed from the country, and who would not.
Changing Priorities for Deportations
Deportations fall into two categories: “returns” and “removals.” People who are “removed” have received an order of deportation from a court. They are ineligible from returning to the United States for a period of years. People counted as “returned” have left — back to Canada or Mexico, for instance — after an administrative process and don’t face legal penalties for having been in the country without authorization.
Here are four snapshot years’ worth of deportations under four administrations. The volume of deportations can depend heavily on the condition of the economy in the United States as well as the countries from which the migrants emigrate and the policies put in place by different administrations.
Each figure = 10,000 people Source: 2017 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics
The Trump administration inherited a deportation infrastructure from his predecessor. The breakdown between people returned and removed in 2017 (the last year for which comparable data is available) is similar to the last year of the Obama administration. Mr. Trump also shifted the public conversation around deportations from immigrants who had been convicted of committing serious crimes to anyone living in the country without authorization.
The Obama administration prioritized removals — especially of criminals — over returns, as it sought to win support for comprehensive immigration reform. The implementation of Secure Communities at the end of the Bush administration saw greater collaboration initiatives between ICE and local law enforcement to use fingerprint data to target individuals for deportation. This program enabled raids, targeting possible deportees inside and outside of the jail system and potential immigrant criminals. In 2012, Mr. Obama signed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which temporarily shielded some 700,000 young people from deportation. The number of annual removals reached an all-time high in 2013.
George W. Bush
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, border security received renewed attention, but the Bush administration still prioritized the more informal returns over removals. During his eight years in office, more than 8 million people were returned, while some 2 million were removed.
The 1990s saw a roaring economy and a turn toward harsher policies for both legal and undocumented immigrants. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act increased the number of categories of criminal activity that could cause immigrants, including green card holders, to be deported and placed in detention depending on their cases.
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A version of this article appears in print on July 13, 2019, Section SR, Page 10 of the New York edition with the headline: All Presidents Are Deporters in Chief. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe