The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently released a report detailing deportations (henceforth “removals”) conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during the fiscal year 2019. The DHS report divides removals into two categories based on the arresting agency: those removed from the interior of the United States and those removed from the border. Interior removals are those who are initially arrested by ICE and then subsequently removed. Border removals are individuals initially apprehended by a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer while they attempted to illegally enter the United States. Those apprehended by CBP are still called removals because they are turned over to ICE who subsequently remove them. To a large degree, border apprehensions are independent of a president’s immigration enforcement policies because factors outside of the United States also influence whether people decide to come in large numbers. However, interior immigration enforcement is much more under the president’s control. Thus, it is important to separate border removals and interior removals when gauging the extent and effectiveness of interior immigration enforcement.
In 2019, ICE deported 85,958 illegal immigrants from the interior of the United States, down about 10 percent from 95,360 in 2018. Annual removals from the interior of the United States peaked at 237,941 in 2011 during the Obama administration (Figure 1). The Trump administration would have to increase the pace of interior removals dramatically to reach Obama’s previous peak. That is unlikely to occur because local law enforcement agencies are much less likely to cooperate with President Trump’s ICE than they were with President Obama’s ICE. Sanctuary policies have an unclear (probably null) effect on crime, but they do reduce deportations. Beginning in 2012, border removals have outnumbered those from the interior of the United States.
Figure 1 includes numbers for interior and border removals going back to 2003. The government didn’t start separating them in official statistics until 2008, so it has always been difficult to compare immigration enforcement in earlier eras to 2008 and after. Since the difference between a border removal and an interior removal is the arresting agency, I used TRAC data to back out the number of border and interior removals by year going back to 2003 when CBP and ICE were created. For years where ICE data and TRAC data overlap, the difference is usually less than 1 percent. Interior removals and border removals began to increase in 2007 and continued to remain high through 2011, falling thereafter.
The Obama administration removed 1,242,486 from the interior of the United States during its full eight years, averaging 155,311 removals per year. George W. Bush’s administration removed 819,964 illegal immigrants from the interior of the United States during the last 6 years of his administration, equal to 136,661 per year. If the percent of the illegal immigrant population deported annually during 2003-2006, before the big increase in 2007, held in 2001 and 2002, George W. Bush’s administration would have deported 1,000,653 from the interior of the United States with an annual average of 125,082. In comparison, the Trump administration has only managed to remove 262,921 total people from the interior of the United States during his first three years in office – only about 30,000 more than President Obama did in 2009 or President Bush did in 2008. On average, the Trump administration has only removed an average of 87,640 people per year.
The percentage of all illegal immigrants removed from the United States is a better measure of the intensity of interior enforcement than the total numbers removed. Based on estimates of the total size of the illegal immigrant population from Pew, ICE removed about 0.82 percent of the illegal immigrant resident population from the interior of the United States in 2019, down from 0.91 percent in 2018. The total immigrant population numbers are estimated to be the same in 2018 and 2019 as in 2017, so the percent deported in the later years is likely an overestimation. Interior removals as a percent of the illegal immigrant population peaked at 2.11 percent in 2009.
ICE under President Obama’s administration removed an average of 1.38 percent of the interior illegal immigrant population per year of his presidency. The Obama administration’s interior removal statistics show a downward trend beginning in 2011 and continued until the end of his administration. So far, ICE under President Trump has only managed to deport an average of 0.83 percent of the illegal immigrant population each year. The annual average for the George W. Bush administration was 1.21 percent deported annually, which drops to 1.15 percent if the 2003-2006 average is applied to 2001 and 2002 as an estimate.
The Obama administration also targeted immigration enforcement on criminal offenders (not all illegal immigrants are criminals and many of them committed immigration crimes). During the Obama administration, 52.6 percent of all illegal immigrants removed were convicted criminals, including those convicted of immigration crimes. During the George W. Bush administration for 2003-2008, the years for which we have data, about 41.3 percent of all illegal immigrants removed were criminals. About 56.5 percent of those deported during the Trump are convicted criminals so far (Figure 3). Compared to the last year of the Obama administration, criminal removals are up 11,472 or about 8.3 percent while non-criminal removals are up 15,531 or about 15.3 percent.
Using TRAC data, I can also estimate the number of interior and border removals who were criminals during the 2003-2019 period (Figure 4). During the Obama administration, about 71 percent of all interior removals were criminals. The comparable figure for the Bush administration for 2003-2008 was 51 percent. A full 78 percent of those deported from the interior of the United States during the Trump administration have been criminals so far. Figure 5 estimates border removals by criminality using TRAC data for earlier years. In every year, fewer than half of them are criminals.
The Trump administration is floundering in its efforts to increase removals. President Trump is not enforcing immigration laws nearly as harshly as his two recent predecessors did.
This article by Alex Nowrasteh first appeared at the Cato Institute.