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Immigration Enforcement in the United States

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Immigration Enforcement in the United States

A Border Patrol agent pats down a Mexican national being returned to Mexico. Photo by Gerald L. Nino/CBP.

Source Spotlights are often updated as new data become available. Please click here to find the most recent version of this Spotlight.

The classic image of immigration enforcement in the United States usually includes a lone Border Patrol agent in his vehicle, scanning the horizon for movement or evidence of unauthorized entries.

In fact, immigration enforcement takes place not just along U.S. borders but also at official ports of entry and in the interior of the United States. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) carries out enforcement activities. Certain state and local law enforcement agencies are also authorized to enforce immigration laws as part of the controversial 287(g) program.

The 613,000 apprehensions in 2009 were lower than the number in 2008, which had been the lowest point since 1975. The 23 percent decline in apprehensions between 2008 and 2009 may indicate that the economic crisis and resulting scarcity of jobs made the United States a less attractive destination in 2009. It is also possible that recent increased enforcement measures have effectively deterred some potential migrants.

While apprehensions dropped, the total number of persons detained in 2009 reached over 383,000, the highest point since 2004, and the 393,000 removals marked a 10-year high.

Drawing from the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, published by the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS), this Spotlight provides data on apprehensions, detentions, removals, and voluntary returns of unauthorized noncitizens in the United States in 2009.

Click on the bullet points below for more information:

Background

Apprehensions

Detentions

Special Note
Apprehension and removal data gathered by DHS count events, not individuals. In some cases, individuals may be apprehended or placed in removal proceedings more than once in any given year.
 

Removals and Voluntary Returns

Background

Immigration enforcement includes locating, arresting, detaining, and removing non-U.S. citizens (including lawful permanent residents) who violate immigration laws.
Immigration enforcement includes locating, arresting, detaining, and removing non-U.S. citizens (including lawful permanent residents) who violate the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), as well as those who attempt illegal entry, enter without authorization, or those who enter legally but later lose their legal status.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996, which amended INA, dramatically changed previous enforcement procedures, categories, and definitions, especially those pertaining to detention and removals. For example, IIRIRA increased border and interior enforcement, and the penalties for unlawful presence in the United States.

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Immigration enforcement activities are carried out by Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Since the creation of the DHS in 2003, two bureaus within the department have had responsibility for immigration enforcement: Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Most immigration enforcement activities fall under four main categories: border patrol, inspections, investigations, and detention and removal. CBP, which oversees enforcement at and between ports of entry, handles border patrol and inspections.

ICE is responsible for enforcing immigration laws within the interior of the United States. Investigations are part of ICE operations. While the Office of Detention and Removal (DRO) is officially part of ICE, services are also contracted out to CBP.

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Immigration and Customs Enforcement may train state and local law enforcement officers to perform immigration law enforcement functions.
Section 287(g) of IIRIRA authorizes DHS to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies, allowing trained officers to perform immigration law enforcement functions under the supervision of an ICE officer.

These agreements differ among participating law enforcement agencies. Also, the use of immigration-status information varies from obtaining status information for only those individuals convicted of felonies to obtaining status information for individuals who have been arrested for minor crimes or violations, such as traffic offenses.

In order to deputize state and local law enforcement officers, ICE must sign a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the head of the local agency and the governor of the state.

As of July 2010, DHS maintained 71 active MOAs and had provided 287(g) training to more than 1,200 officers. DHS credits the program with the removal of more than 172,000 individuals since January 2006.

  • For more information on 287(g) agreements, visit the Immigration and Customs Enforcement website.

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The Border Patrol is responsible for enforcing border areas between legal ports of entry.
CBP Border Patrol officers are responsible for enforcing 8,000 miles of U.S. land and water boundaries between legal ports of entry (designated points where immigration officials can regulate entry). The goal of the Border Patrol is to maintain a presence along border areas outside official ports of entry in order to prevent individuals, such as criminals and unauthorized migrants, from entering U.S. territory.

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Inspectors verify admissibility of entrants to the United States at official ports of entry.
CBP inspectors verify admissibility of entrants to the United States at official ports of entry, such as a land-border crossing or airport. If an individual is deemed inadmissible, the inspector has the authority to allow a person to withdraw his or her application for entry, refer the case to a formal removal hearing, or, in some instances, order removal themselves under a process called "expedited removal" (more on expedited removal here).

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ICE investigators apprehend unauthorized immigrants in the interior of the United States.
ICE investigators apprehend unauthorized immigrants in the interior of the United States through formal investigations similar to those of other law enforcement agencies. Investigators often work in task force teams.

The five major categories of investigations are criminal, worksite enforcement (employment of unauthorized workers), fraud, smuggling (of unauthorized migrants), and investigations of those who entered without inspection or lost their legal status.

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Within ICE, the Special Agent-in-Charge offices are responsible for administering and managing all enforcement activities within the office's geographic jurisdiction.
Those working for Special Agent-in-Charge (SAC) offices develop, coordinate, and implement enforcement strategies that are in line with national policies and procedures. SAC offices have considerable discretion in tailoring immigration enforcement strategies — including investigations — for specific geographic regions. ICE has 26 SAC principal field offices (see Map 1).

 


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Detention and removal officers are responsible for the custody and tracking of individuals in removal proceedings.
ICE detention and removal officers are responsible for the custody and tracking of individuals in removal proceedings. This includes ensuring the individual's basic needs are provided for, removal procedures are carried out appropriately, and detainees are delivered to the proper authorities in their home country.

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Apprehensions

Immigrants are apprehended (arrested) when found to be in violation of immigration laws.
Immigrants are apprehended (arrested) when found to be in violation of immigration laws, when attempting illegal entry, or when found to have overstayed or violated conditions of their legal status. Violators are apprehended through Border Patrol or ICE investigation activities.

Individuals can also be apprehended by certain state and local law enforcement officials as part of the 287(g) program.

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In 2009, DHS immigration officials made just over 600,000 apprehensions.
According to DHS, immigration officials made 613,003 apprehensions in 2009 — the decade's lowest number. The number of apprehensions in 2009 was 22.6 percent lower than in 2008 (791,568) and about a third of the number in 2000 (1,814,729), the decade's highest.

Note: Apprehensions are events, not individuals. In other words, the same individual can be apprehended more than once.

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The Border Patrol accounted for about nine in 10 of all apprehensions in 2009.
The Border Patrol made 90.7 percent (556,032) of all apprehensions (613,003) in 2009, while investigations in the interior were responsible for 3.6 percent (21,877) of apprehensions. The arrest of fugitive and nonfugitive individuals under ICE's National Fugitive Operations Program, which aims to locate and remove dangerous fugitive aliens, accounted for 5.7 percent (35,094) of apprehensions (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Number of Apprehensions by Program (thousands) and Percentage Attributed to Investigations, 1998 to 2009
Notes: *Detention and removal operations (DRO) includes arrests of fugitive and nonfugitive immigrants under the Office of Detention and Removal Operations National Fugitive Operations Program. Disaggregated DRO apprehensions data are only available starting in 2006.
Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Enforcement, 2009. Available online.


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Apprehensions along the Southwest border have decreased each year since 2005.
There are a total of 21 Border Patrol sectors. Nine are along the Southwest border: two in California, five in Texas, and two in Arizona (see Map 2).

Of Border Patrol apprehensions, 97.3 percent (540,851) occurred along the Southwest border. Apprehensions in this area decreased by 53.8 percent between 2005 (1,171,428) and 2009 (540,851). During the last decade, apprehensions in Southwest sectors peaked in 2000 (1,643,679) and hit their lowest point in 2009 (540,851).

 

Map 2. U.S. Border Patrol Sectors
Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection


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The Tucson, Arizona, sector accounted for more Border Patrol apprehensions in 2009 than any other sector.
Five of the nine Southwest sectors accounted for 89.1 percent (495,462) of all border apprehensions. These five sectors were Tucson, Arizona (241,667 or 43.5 percent of the total); San Diego, California (118,712 or 21.3 percent); Rio Grande Valley, Texas (60,992 or 11.0 percent); Laredo, Texas (40,571 or 7.3 percent); and El Centro, California (33,520 or 6.0 percent) (see Figure 2).

In 2000, apprehensions in the Tucson sector also outnumbered those in any other sector, accounting for 616,346 (36.8 percent) of the 1,676,438 apprehensions. During the same year, apprehensions in the following five sectors accounted for 77.3 percent of all apprehensions: Tucson, Arizona; El Centro, California (238,126 or 14.2 percent); Del Rio, Texas (157,178 or 9.4 percent); San Diego, California (151,681 or 9.0 percent); and Rio Grande Valley, Texas (133,243 or 7.9 percent).

 

Figure 2. Border Patrol Apprehensions by Sectors, 2009
Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Enforcement, 2009. Available online.


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Mexican citizens accounted for 86 percent of all apprehensions in 2009.
Mexican citizens accounted for the majority of apprehensions in 2009, representing 528,139 (86.2 percent) of the 613,003 apprehensions. Citizens of Honduras and Guatemala — the next largest countries of origin — each accounted for about 3 percent (20,746 and 19,149, respectively). From 2004 to 2009, Mexican citizens accounted for the majority of apprehensions.

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Detentions

Individuals who are apprehended and not released from custody are kept in detention facilities.
ICE detains individuals who are apprehended and not released from custody or placed in alternative-to-detention programs. Since the implementation of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) in 1997, detention has become mandatory for cases classified as "criminal." However, not all those detained have criminal records.

In some instances, individuals may be detained indefinitely because they are considered a threat to national security or because their country of origin will not accept responsibility for them. Persons appealing a removal decision or applying for asylum status may also be detained until their cases are settled.

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The United States currently holds detainees in state and local prisons, contract detention facilities, and federal prisons, as well as "soft" detention alternatives.
As of 2009, ICE reported having 32,000 detention beds across as many as 350 different facilities largely designed for penal, not civil, detention. The facilities are either jails that county authorities run or detention centers that private contractors operate.

The Obama administration created the Office of Detention Policy and Planning in August 2009 to make the system more closely resemble a civil detention system. The Office of Detention Oversight was created to improve federal monitoring of ICE's detention facilities.

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In 2009, immigration officials detained 383,524 individuals.
Immigration officials detained 383,524 individuals in 2009. The number of individuals detained in 2009 was slightly higher than in 2008 (378,582) but 61 percent higher than in 2005 (237,667).

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Sixty-three percent of detainees in 2009 were from Mexico.
About 241,600 detainees were from Mexico (63.0 percent), up from 49 percent in 2007. Yet due to their relatively short stays in detention, in 2009 Mexican detainees accounted for only 34 percent of "detention bed days" (the number of days a detainee is housed in a detention facility).

After Mexico, the leading countries of nationality for those detained were El Salvador (11 percent of bed days), Guatemala (10 percent), Honduras (9 percent), and China (3 percent).

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The End of "Catch and Release"
In 2006, DHS ended "catch and release." This practice entailed the Border Patrol releasing apprehended non-Mexican migrants into the United States, where they awaited removal hearings. "Catch and release" was a way of coping with overcrowded immigrant detention facilities.

However, many individuals failed to appear for their hearings. As part of the Secure Border Initiative — a multiyear effort to increase security along U.S. borders — DHS increased detention bed space and shortened stays in detention facilities by expanding the use of expedited removal.

These efforts helped ICE work toward a "catch and return" policy in which removable apprehended persons are detained until they can be returned to their countries of origin.

 

Removals and Voluntary Returns

Foreign-born individuals who have to leave the United States are categorized as either "removals" or "voluntary returns."
Both removals and voluntary returns result in the departure of a foreign-born individual from the United States.

Enforcement actions categorized as removals generally place weightier criminal and/or administrative consequences on reentry. In addition to the removal itself, individuals can be subject to fines, imprisonment for up to 10 years for failing to appear at their hearings or for failing to depart, and/or bars on future reentry ranging from 20 years to permanent.

Voluntary returns are most common among noncriminal cases where the Border Patrol has made the apprehension. Through the voluntary-return process, individuals waive their rights to a formal hearing and agree to pay removal expenses. By doing so, they can generally reapply for admittance without consequence.

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Formal removal proceedings are usually conducted during immigration hearings that involve judges from the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR).
Formal removal proceedings are usually conducted during immigration hearings that involve judges from EOIR under the Department of Justice (DOJ), as well as prosecutors from DHS. Individuals in proceedings may be represented by attorneys at their own expense and may also appeal the court's decision through DOJ's Board of Immigration Appeals. Individuals seeking asylum in the United States may make an asylum claim during formal removal proceedings.

Penalties for those who are found to violate immigration laws can include fines, jail time, removal from the country, and restriction of future admission.

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Certain forms of removal may allow a person to be removed from the country without a hearing before an immigration judge.
Expedited removal, administrative removal, and reinstatement of removal are forms of removal that may allow a person to be removed without a hearing before an immigration judge.

An expedited removal can be used for certain persons who attempt to enter without entry documents or with fraudulent documents. An inspector at the time of attempted entry usually orders this type of removal; the individual is not allowed to consult legal counsel or present his or her claim before an immigration judge.

Any person subject to expedited removal who raises a claim for asylum — or expresses fear of returning to his or her home country — is given the opportunity to explain his or her fears to an asylum officer in a credible fear interview. Persons subject to expedited removal can also voice claims for legal status in the United States.

Administrative removal and reinstatement of removal may also allow persons to be removed without a hearing before an immigration judge. Individuals convicted of an aggravated felony or certain other criminal offenses may be subject to administrative removal. Persons previously ordered removed who departed the country and then reentered illegally may be subject to reinstatement of removal. The DHS Office of Immigration Statistics does not publish data on administrative removals or reinstatements of removal.

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There were 393,000 removals in 2009, the highest number in 10 years.
Of the 393,289 removals in 2009, 32.6 percent or 128,345 were classified as criminals, a higher share than in 2008 (27.1 percent of 358,886).

Note: Removals are events, not individuals. In other words, the same individual can be removed more than once in the same year.

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Removals more than doubled between 2000 and 2009.
Removals increased by 111.0 percent from 186,391 in 2000 to 393,289 in 2009.

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Mexican nationals accounted for seven out of every 10 removals in 2009.
Mexican nationals made up 282,666 of 393,289 removals, or 71.9 percent. The next-largest source countries were Guatemala (7.4 percent or 29,182) and Honduras (6.8 percent or 26,849).

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Expedited removals accounted for more than a quarter of all removals in 2009.
Expedited removals accounted for 27.1 percent (106,613) of total removals in 2009, down from 31.6 percent in 2008 (113,462 out of 358,886).

The share of expedited removals as a percentage of all removals fluctuated between 2001 and 2009, peaking in 2001 (36.9 percent of the 189,026 total removals) and bottoming out in 2003 (20.8 percent of the 211,098 total removals).

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There were over 580,000 voluntary returns in 2009.
There were 580,107 voluntary returns in 2009, which marked a 28.5 percent decrease compared to the 811,263 voluntary returns in 2008. In 2009, Mexican nationals accounted for 80.2 percent of voluntary returns and Canadians 4.4 percent.

Note: Voluntary returns are events, not individuals. In other words, the same individual can be apprehended and "returned" to his or her home country more than once in the same year.

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The number of removals and voluntary returns combined stood at just under 1 million in 2009, the lowest level since 2000.
Combined removals and voluntary returns in 2009 totaled 973,396. That figure is 16.8 percent lower than in 2008 (1,170,149) and 47.7 percent lower than the decade's highest number of 1,862,267 in 2000 (see Figure 3).

 

Figure 3. Removals: Voluntary Returns and Expedited and Formal Removals, 1998 to 2009
Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Enforcement, 2009. Available online.


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Voluntary returns outnumbered removals in 2009.
In 2009, voluntary returns accounted for 59.6 percent of the 973,396 total removals and voluntary returns, while removals were 40.4 percent.

Voluntary returns made up a smaller share of the total than they did in 1998 (90.1 percent) (see Figure 3).