Immigration Enforcement Since 9/11:
A Reality Check

In the decade since the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were created in the wake of 9/11/01, senior officials in these agencies have repeatedly asserted that their primary enforcement mission was to deport terrorists, persons who threatened the national security and serious criminals from the United States.

An examination of millions of case-by-case government records about the day-to-day actions of the DHS and ICE, however, has determined that these frequent claims — made by senior executives under both President Bush and President Obama — are misleading.

The contrast between the official pronouncements and actual achievements of the government during the last twenty years has been documented in an analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) of case-by-case records of all deportation proceedings[1] initiated by ICE, and its predecessor agency (the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS), in the Immigration Courts.

The data — current through July 26, 2011 — were obtained by TRAC under the Freedom of Information Act from the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) which maintains these official immigration court records.

What The Government Has Done

Key findings from these government records are:

A decade-by-decade comparison of all removal proceedings initiated in the Immigration Courts seeking to deport individuals from the United States shows substantial growth — from 1.6 million in the decade before 9/11 to 2.3 million in the ten years after.

Figure 1. Decade Before vs. Decade After 9/11:
U.S. Deportation Proceedings in Immigration
Courts by Charge (click for larger image).

But a comparison of the kinds of deportation proceedings in both the pre-and-post 9/11 periods documents that the actual numbers of those aimed at criminals, national security threats and terrorists have all declined rather than increased (see Figure 1). On the other hand, the total number of those charged with purely immigration violations has sharply increased — 1.2 million before the attacks, 1.9 million after.

Deportation proceedings on terrorist or national security grounds, always an extremely rare event, have become even rarer (see Figure 1). In the decade before the 9/11 attacks, for example, there were a grand total of 88 matters involving terrorism charges. For the ten years after 9/ll there were 37 such cases.

Figure 2. Post-9/11 Decade: U.S. Deportation
Proceedings in Immigration Courts
by Charge (click for larger image).

When examined in terms of the activities of the two administrations, the annual average number of deportation proceedings since 9/11 increased from 219,941 a year under President Bush to 246,572 a year under President Obama. There appears to have been some improvement in targeting, with those charged with criminal immigration violations rising (see Figure 2). But these targeting changes have been modest.

In addition, the new deportation proceedings initiated in the last 12 months indicate that the initial small gains achieved by the Obama Administration are now disappearing. The recent downward trend in filings charging criminal violations are shown in Figure 3. In the last six months (January — June 2011) the proportion of deportation proceedings charging criminal violations has actually fallen below the average level in the Bush years.

Figure 3. Obama Administration: U.S. Deportation
Proceedings in Immigration Courts by Charge
(click for larger image).

The above findings are based upon the deportation actions initiated by ICE in the Immigration Courts. Other parts of the government's overall deportation efforts were accomplished by unilateral DHS administrative actions or channeled through the federal district courts. The actual effectiveness of criminal prosecutions — which did indeed substantially increase during the Obama years — will be the second of TRAC's planned series of reports on this important subject.

New User App Provides Up-To-Date Information on Deportation Proceedings

To obtain annual state-by-state, court-by-court, hearing office-by-hearing office and nationality-by-nationality information about these deportation filings in the decade before and after 9/11 click here.

See Deportation
Data App

The actual initiation of deportation proceedings by DHS (and its predecessor agency the INS) — displayed in the app and described in summary form just above — are core to an intense political debate that has engulfed the United States since the 9/11 attacks. This debate has been highlighted by numerous broad claims made by officials serving under both President Bush and President Obama.

A central aspect of this long-running dispute has been the extent to which ICE and other agencies have in fact sought to deport serious criminals rather than the many millions of noncitizens who now live in the United States and who entered illegally, or entered legally but overstayed their visas or have fallen afoul of the complex welter of other immigration rules.

The aim of TRAC's new user app is to allow the public to directly examine the detailed records of government deportation activities in the Immigration Courts.

What Government Officials Claim Has Been Done

Among the first in the post-9/11 period to assert that ICE's central enforcement goal was to target terrorists and criminals and not immigration violators was Julie L. Myers, the first director of ICE. At a conference of immigration lawyers in 2007, for example, Myers reported she was "proud that we are entering our fifth year of service to the American people and our mission remains clear — to protect the United States and uphold public safety by targeting the people, money and materials that support terrorists and criminal activities." In her testimony to Congress and in various speeches, Myers continually emphasized her commitment to targeting criminals and terrorists.