WASHINGTON — More than 4.5 million unauthorized immigrants and other removable non-citizens have been deported from the United States since Congress passed sweeping legislation in 1996 to toughen the nation’s immigration enforcement system, with the pace of formal removals rising from about 70,000 in 1996 to a record 419,000 in 2012.
The current-era deportation system—shaped by laws expanding and speeding the removal process, major increases in immigration enforcement spending and policy decisions by three successive administrations—is characterized by sharply different enforcement pictures at the border and within the United States. At the border, a near zero-tolerance system has emerged, where most unauthorized immigrants are subject to formal removal and criminal charges. Within the country, there is greater flexibility, with priorities and resources focused on a smaller share of the sizeable unauthorized population. The differences reflect different goals and circumstances confronting border and interior enforcement. But their impacts are converging, raising complex questions for policymakers.
A Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report issued today, The Deportation Dilemma: Reconciling Tough and Humane Enforcement, assesses the border and interior enforcement systems and outcomes over the past two decades. The report analyzes the current pipelines for removal and key trends in border and interior apprehensions, deportations and criminal prosecutions. With the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the midst of a review of its deportation policies to see if they can be conducted “more humanely,” the report also examines the policy levers the Obama administration has to influence deportation policies, practices and results.
“While adjustments to DHS enforcement priorities can be made, actions by the executive branch alone cannot reconcile the fundamentally competing policy demands the immigration enforcement system now confronts,” said report co-author Doris Meissner, director of MPI’s U.S. Immigration Policy Program and former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. “The deportation dilemma is this: How does the government carry out its enforcement responsibilities and mandates while also shielding U.S.-citizen and immigrant families and communities from the inevitable damage that a robust enforcement system inflicts?”
The report identifies three key enforcement trends that have emerged since passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996:
While there has been overall policy continuity in border enforcement policies for a decade or more, the Obama administration has introduced a significant policy change for enforcement within the country. The administration established explicit enforcement priorities and updated guidelines for exercising discretion not to deport certain people who fall outside established enforcement priority categories. The great majority of the nearly 2 million people removed by the current administration during its first five years fall into one or more of the DHS enforcement priority categories. Yet while the administration’s policies have focused enforcement on high-priority cases, the report finds that the record has been mixed when it comes to taking low-priority cases out of enforcement pipelines.
“The capacity of the current deportation system to remove 400,000 or more unauthorized immigrants per year represents a new historical reality,” said report co-author Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of MPI’s U.S. Immigration Policy Program. “The current system is deeply unsatisfying to both sides in the immigration debate. Those who favor tougher enforcement object to the low priority being placed on deporting unauthorized immigrants who fall outside stated enforcement priority categories. Those who are concerned about the harsh effects of deportation object to the continued removal of large numbers of people with strong ties to American families and communities.”
The report assesses a number of potential policy reforms, including refining enforcement priorities based on earlier implementation experience, providing opportunities for greater judicial oversight of removals, closer examination of cases of non-citizens with deep ties in the United States and improving consistency around the country in the application of enforcement guidelines.
“Whatever answer the administration gives when it concludes its policy review is not likely to diminish controversy and the disagreements over issues of deportation until the real solution—a rationalized, updated immigration law—is one day politically possible,” Meissner said.
The report can be downloaded at www.migrationpolicy.org/research/deportation-dilemma-reconciling-tough-humane-enforcement
For more MPI reports, issue briefs, and data pertinent to the current U.S. immigration policy debate, visit: www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/us-immigration-policy-program/CIR
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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. For more on MPI, please visit www.migrationpolicy.org.