It is by now well-known that more immigrants have been deported on an annual basis since President Obama took office than at any time in U.S. history. Late last month, however, Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) issued a statement seeking to cast doubt on this widely accepted fact by alleging that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) inflated its record-breaking deportation figures for 2011. Although the accusations are somewhat complicated, the truth is straightforward: despite overstating its total number of “removals,” ICE deported the highest number of immigrants last year in the agency’s history.

To understand this controversy, one must be familiar with the two basic terms used to describe the forcible departure of immigrants from the United States. When an immigrant receives a formal order of deportation, his departure is classified as a “removal.” When an immigrant is deportable but allowed to leave without such an order, his departure is classified as a “return.” From a legal perspective, the difference matters because immigrants who are “removed” from the country face more obstacles to obtaining a visa in the future—and greater penalties for coming back illegally—than those who are “returned.”

In his statement, which was issued on behalf of the House Judiciary Committee, Smith took issue with the record 396,906 “removals” for the 2011 fiscal year that ICE has reported in press releases and other documents. According to Smith, ICE inflated this figure by including—for the first time—thousands of immigrants who were “returned” to Mexico through the Alien Transfer Exit Program (ATEP), which is jointly run with the Border Patrol. By Smith’s calculations, excluding the “returns” recorded through the ATEP program would leave ICE with around 360,000 “removals” in 2011, the lowest total in four years.

Although Smith is partially correct, his larger comparison involves apples and oranges. Smith is right that the record number of “removals” reported by ICE for fiscal 2011 includes thousands of “returns,” some (but not all) of which occurred through the ATEP program. Nonetheless, as is apparent from data that is readily available on ICE’s website, the agency began including “returns” in its overall “removal” numbers well before last year. And after excluding all of the “returns” that ICE has counted as “removals,” rather than only those carried out through the ATEP program, the agency still set a record for bona fide “removals” in fiscal 2011 (see chart below). In short, despite having exaggerated the total number, ICE still “removed” more immigrants last year than at any time in the agency’s history.

ICE Removals v. Returns, fiscal years 2007-2011

One additional point worth mentioning is that because thousands of immigrants are also “removed” each year by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a separate agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the number of genuine “removals” reported by ICE does not represent the total number of “removals” carried out by the DHS as a whole. According to DHS statistics released last week, ICE and CBP collectively “removed” 391,953 immigrants for the 2011 fiscal year—slightly below the record of 393,457 set in 2009. Thus, although ICE inflated its own “removal” figures, the number it reported ended up being virtually identical to the number of deportations made by DHS.

The bottom line: while it is misleading for ICE to include “returns” in its overall number of “removals,” the agency and DHS carried out record and near-record numbers of deportations in fiscal 2011. Whether one is encouraged or disheartened by this fact, it is wrong to suggest otherwise.


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