shutterstock_86474341For more than a decade, the general thrust of U.S. immigration policy has been aimed at expanding the grounds of removal and the tools for facilitating deportations from the country. Not surprisingly, this has come at an enormous cost. Although the figure has been disputed by restrictionists, a report from the Migration Policy Institute recently found that the federal government spent $18 billion last year on immigration enforcement. Dollars are not the only way to measure immigration enforcement, however, as the number of removals has itself skyrocketed in recent years.

Beyond expelling an immigrant from the country, an order of deportation (or “removal”) carries significant legal penalties. Any deportee who later illegally re-enters the country is subject to felony charges and is permanently barred from obtaining legal status. As a new IPC fact sheet explains, the number of removals has risen dramatically over the past decade—from an average of 180,000 in the years immediately preceding the September 11 attacks, to nearly 400,000 during each year of the Obama administration.* To put these figures into historical perspective, there have been more removals in the past ten years than in the previous 110 years combined.


While the past decade has also seen a rise in DHS’ budget, authorities’ ability to find and deport so many immigrants is primarily due to specific policy and legal changes. During the Bush administration, for example, DHS entered dozens of 287(g) agreements with law enforcement agencies around the country, giving thousands of state and local officers the same powers as federal immigration agents. More significantly, due to the nationwide expansion of the Secure Communities program, DHS can now cross-check the fingerprints of virtually all persons arrested by state or local police against their own immigration databases. While not everyone flagged by Secure Communities is eligible for removal (or even a noncitizen for that matter), recent figures show the program now resulting in more than 40,000 fingerprint matches per month.

At the same time DHS has been able to detect more immigrants who are subject to deportation, amendments to the immigration laws enacted in 1996 have allowed authorities to obtain many orders of removal without holding a hearing before an immigration judge. Under the 1996 amendments, DHS officers can issue “expedited” removal orders or “reinstate” prior orders without further administrative or even judicial review. Indeed, for immigrants facing removal, having a hearing before an immigration judge is now the exception rather than the rule. In fiscal 2011, there were more than twice as many removals based on administrative orders from DHS officers (265,943) as there were based on orders from immigration judges (126,010).

Importantly, as the number of removals has steadily risen over the past decade, the number of “returns” has drastically fallen. (A return is a departure that is not accompanied by a formal removal order.) Why? For one thing, most returns involve immigrants caught trying to enter the country from Mexico, and Border Patrol apprehensions are now at their lowest point since the Nixon administration. Meanwhile, as part of a broader strategy to deter illegal entries, the Border Patrol now removes many immigrants who would have previously been returned, thereby subjecting them to felony charges if they attempt to unlawfully re-enter.

Taken together, these trends reflect a turning point in the enforcement of the immigration laws. Not only are removals at an all-time, but the number of annual deportations now exceeds the number of people caught trying to illegally enter in the first place. Thus, whether measured in dollars or in individual removals, the impact of an enforcement-driven culture is clearly staggering.

(* Last month, ICE announced that it carried out 409,849 “removals” in fiscal 2012. As we have previously explained, however, ICE misleadingly includes “returns” in its overall removal numbers. The actual number of “removals” carried out by ICE in fiscal 2012 was 346,487, still a record for the agency.)

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