In a deluge of recent statements, Republican political figures including Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, Texas Governor Rick Perry, Arizona Senator John McCain and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin have sharply criticized President Obama and his administration for failing to secure the United States border with Mexico.
On a Fox News program on Sunday August 1 2010, for example, Palin said that Governor Brewer, a leading proponent of increasing state immigration enforcement authority, "has the cojones that our President does not have. ... If our own President will not enforce our federal law, more power to Jan Brewer." And several days ago, repeating many earlier statements, Brewer said the immigration laws are "just not being enforced."
Just released figures from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), however, show that during the first nine months of FY 2010, 279,035 non-U.S. citizens were removed* from the country as a result of ICE enforcement. This number is ten (10) percent more than the same period during FY 2008 — the last fiscal year of the Bush administration. This represents almost a doubling of the rate of removals that have taken place during the past five years (see Table 1).
Change in Targeting Under Obama Administration
In addition to increases in alien removals under the Obama administration, the data also show that ICE — rather than simply trying to ramp up numbers — has also directed more of its attention to going after noncitizens who have committed crimes while in this country.
In a Feb 2010 report, TRAC's detailed analysis found that, from FY 2005 through FY 2009, the sharp increases in ICE detention and removal of non-U.S. citizens had been accomplished largely by catching noncitizens who had not committed any crimes while in this country, but who had either crossed the border illegally or had entered legally but overstayed their visas. In that Feb 2010 report, however, TRAC noted that during the first three months of FY 2010 there appeared to be a change in ICE enforcement strategy — targeting individuals who had committed crimes while in this country (see Figure 1 reproduced from earlier report).
The latest ICE figures which extend through the first nine months of FY 2010 show that this shift in targeting has continued and strengthened. Indeed, focusing just on aliens who have committed crimes in this country, the number of criminal aliens removed by ICE has already broken all previous records, and climbed to an all-time high. The removal pace of criminal aliens in FY 2010 is fully 60 percent higher than in the last year of the Bush administration, and at least a third (37%) higher than in the first year of the Obama administration (see Table 2).
1 Based upon alien-by-alien removal records released to TRAC.
2 Based on summary figures released by ICE.
In turn, while the total numbers of noncitizens ICE removed has grown, removal of aliens who have merely overstayed their visas or crossed the border illegally dropped for the first time in the last five years, as ICE gave priority to removing those convicted of crimes (see Table 3).
It remains the case, according to the latest ICE figures, that still slightly less than half (49%) of those removed were convicted criminal aliens, while slightly over half (51%) had no criminal record (see Table 4).
Targeting Those Committing Serious Crimes
ICE data for FY 2010 provide for the first time a more detailed breakdown by the seriousness of the criminal offenses of those removed or returned. ICE Commissioner John Morton announced that in implementing its latest program, Secure Communities, the agency will: "[p]rioritize criminal aliens for enforcement action based on their threat to public safety" so that detention and removal dollars are spent on "high-risk criminal aliens" — those committing the most serious crimes.**
Judged by Commissioner Morton's goal, the latest figures show that only one in six (17%) of noncitizens removed from the country thus far this year are those who have committed these serious crimes (figures are shown in Table 4). Sometimes the classification of different kinds of crime into ICE's "seriousness" categories is surprising. Traffic violations, for example, are classed as level 2, in the middle of the scale. See list of crimes classified by seriousness level.
The Secure Communities program, which the agency is rapidly expanding, has the potential of locating large numbers of aliens who have been arrested by local authorities for petty offenses. In the end, the question remains: will the Secure Communities program actually target "high risk criminal aliens" or sweep all noncitizens who are arrested or picked up into the detention system as long as beds remain to be filled? Judged by that standard, despite significant progress in increasing the numbers of criminal aliens detained and removed, most have not committed "serious crimes**" by the agency's own definition.
The deportation of aliens, however, is only one of several possible enforcement tactics available to the federal government. A second approach involves bringing criminal charges in federal district court. Here too, as noted in a July 15 TRAC report, the latest monthly case-by-case data from the Justice Department show that criminal immigration enforcement by the two largest investigative agencies within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has increased to levels comparable to the highest seen during the Bush Administration. Indeed, in March and April ICE-referred criminal prosecutions exceeded the record under Bush, rising to an all-time high.
Reliability of ICE Numbers?
Tables 2 and 3 present two sets of figures for FY 2009. The first, tracking individuals, is based upon individual-by-individual case details that ICE provided TRAC late in January in response to our requests. The second set, released by ICE last week, has pre-summarized figures. While the two counts closely agree as to the totals, they disagree as to the criminal/non-criminal composition of those removed. In the figures for FY 2009 that ICE released late last week, around 2,000 individuals each month were — without explanation — shifted from the non-criminal column to the criminal column. No explanation was provided for re-categorizing these deportees — long after they had been deported — as criminals convicted of crimes while in this country.
But just as ICE was releasing these new figures, its FOIA office last week responded to a long-pending TRAC request for current information on the specific criminal offenses the individual had been charged with and their outcome (convicted, not guilty, dismissed, etc.). ICE claimed they could not provide these full details — despite the fact that TRAC had previously received from the agency under FOIA precisely this information for an earlier period. ICE's FOIA office also indicated that "[i]t is impossible" to provide the case-by-case details "to track everyone" from apprehension to release or removal although that is, of course, what the agency's own databases are now designed to do. It asked TRAC to restrict or withdraw its request.
Unfortunately, resolving these discrepancies in ICE's own data requires a greater degree of transparency than the agency appears currently willing to display. Just as an accountant checking the accuracy of a firm's financial statement needs to check its books to make sure that all inflows and outflows of money are accounted for, so too ICE needs to release the details behind its latest figures so that the public can see that its figures are consistent with the details of what actually has taken place.
* Removals here include returns. According to ICE, the term 'returns' includes voluntary returns, voluntary departures and withdrawals under docket control. The vast majority of these, however, are removals where the individual is barred from re-entry for a period of years, sometimes permanently. Removal figures in this report focus on ICE activity, and do not include those that fall exclusively under the Border Patrol.
** Under the Secure Communities program, serious offenses (sometimes referred to as "Level 1 Crimes") include the following state or federal crimes: national security violations, homicide, kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, threats of bodily harm, extortion or threat to injure a person, sex offenses, cruelty toward child or spouse, resisting an officer, weapons violations, hit and run involving injury or death, and drug offenses involving sentencing to a term of imprisonment greater than one year" (see Secure Communities Standard Operating Procedures).