US President Barack Obama’s administration deported 393,289 undocumented immigrants in 2009 - the highest number of deportations for any year in the country’s history, according to official figures by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released in August.
The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 34,403 more people during President Obama’s first year in office than during former president George W. Bush’s last year (2008), which was also Bush’s highest year for deportations. ICE director John Morton has predicted an even higher number for the fiscal year 2010.
Speaking on National Public Radio on September 1, Morton boasted that his agency had “brought more fines and more criminal prosecutions against employers [who hire illegal immigrants] than any administration in the history of the government.”
According to Pat Reilly, an ICE spokesperson, the deportation figures do not reflect an exact head count, but an estimate based on the agency’s present capacity to identify, apprehend and remove undocumented immigrants. The record-setting figures for 2009, Reilly says, reflect ICE’s increased resources and enforcement capacity.
For Audrey Singer, a demographer and expert on US immigration policy with the Washington-based Brookings Institution, the Obama administration has been pressured into an “enforcement first” policy while it waits for a better time to champion comprehensive immigration reform.
“Clearly nothing is going to happen in 2010,” Singer says. “Obama is pushing enforcement now as a downpayment for further reform down the line.”
DHS’s rising enforcement score bears comparison to a Sept. 1 report by the Pew Hispanic Center, which claims that unauthorised immigration flows into the US are down sharply since 2007.
According to Pew’s researchers, the number of illegal immigrants living in the US was down from around 12 million in 2007 to around 11.1 million in 2009. More than half of these immigrants are Mexican. The study credits tougher immigration enforcement and the global economic recession as the two main factors contributing to the trend.
Acting on what conservatives have labelled 'Democratic leniency' on illegal immigrants, Arizona’s Republican governor Jan Brewer signed a controversial law in April that requires local police to investigate people’s immigration status. But key parts of that law have been put on hold pending federal oversight.
Following the release of these statistics, critics like Brewer will find it harder to label Obama soft on illegal immigration. The increase in deportations is strongest among criminals: in 2009 US officials tallied 128,345 criminal deportations. In comparison, the average number of criminal deportations per year under president Bush was 90,256.
For Sergio Saenz, who works at the Texas-based immigration advocacy group Las Americas, the criminal category does not fairly reflect the people affected by Obama’s policy drive. For the DHS figures, the criminal tag is assigned for murder, but also traffic violations.
“Many have been deported for very minor crimes that were committed a long time ago. Some people do stupid things when they are young, but then go on to establish families and buy homes,” Saenz laments. “[Obama] is trying to please the people who didn’t elect him."
However, the majority of deportations from the US, under both Obama and Bush, were of people who had not been convicted of any crime.