E.g., 03/04/2024
E.g., 03/04/2024
Deportation and Discretion: Reviewing the Record and Options for Change

Since Congress revamped the immigration enforcement system in 1996, the United States has formally deported ("removed") more than 4.6 million noncitizens, with about 3.7 million of these occurring since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003. While the administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have actively increased formal removals and the criminal prosecution of immigration violations, the Obama administration in particular has undertaken a series of measures to focus enforcement efforts on certain high-priority cases.

The result has been an increase of removals within the interior of noncitizens convicted of crimes, with criminal removals accounting for 80 percent of interior removals during FY 2011-13. Another result of this focus has been a steep rise in border removals, which represented 70 percent of all removals in FY 2013.

This report provides analysis of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) database of all formal removals for fiscal 2003-2013 in which the agency played a role, as well as those carried out solely by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The report offers a  profile of deportees and examines how removal trends changed during and between the Bush and Obama administrations as well as how closely the deportations adhere to current DHS enforcement priorities. It also outlines some of the scenarios for executive action said to be under consideration by the Obama administration, examining how potential changes to enforcement policy could affect the number of deportations.

The report's key findings include:

  • The largest category of convictions for criminal deportees was immigration crimes, accounting for 18 percent of criminal removals between FY 2003-13 (279,000 out of 1.5 million cases). The three next largest crime categories were FBI Part 1 crimes (a definition that includes homicide, aggravated assault and burglary, 15 percent of criminal removals during the period), FBI Part 2 crimes identified by MPI as violent offenses (14 percent) and FBI Part 2 crimes identified by MPI as nonviolent offenses (14 percent).
  • In the FY 2003-13 period, 95 percent of all DHS removals fell into one or more of the current enforcement priority categories, which reflect long-standing and broadly defined goals for DHS and previously the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)
  • There would have been about 191,000 fewer deportations over this period had DHS exercised discretion by foregoing removal for all cases not falling into the designated enforcement priorities
  • Interior removals of noncriminals fell sharply under the Obama administration, from 77,000 (43 percent) in FY 2009 to 17,000 (13 percent) in FY 2013.
  • Ninety-one percent of all removals during FY 2003-13 were from Mexico or the Northern Triangle countries of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). By comparison, about 73 percent of all unauthorized immigrants are from Mexico or Central America.
  • Deportations disproportionately affect men, who make up 91 percent of those removed even as they account for 53 percent of the overall unauthorized population. 

At a pivotal moment in the U.S. immigration debate, characterized by deadlock and crisis, this analysis contributes to the debates by addressing key questions surrounding immigration enforcement since 2003, namely: who is being removed, where are noncitizens being apprehended and how are they being removed, how are DHS's current enforcement priorities reflected in enforcement outcomes, and how might changes to DHS's priorities affect future deportations? 

Table of Contents 

I. Introduction

II. Data and Methodology

III. DHS Enforcement Priorities

IV. A Brief Profile of Deportees

V. Deportees' Previous Criminal Convictions

A. Most Serious Lifetime Convictions

B. Time Between Criminal Conviction and Immigration Apprehension

C. Criminal and Noncriminal Removal Patterns at the Border and in the Interior

VI. Where Are Deportees Being Apprehended and How Are They Being Removed?

A. Where Are Apprehensions Occurring?

B. How Are People Being Removed?

C. When Are Apprehensions Occurring?

VII. Adherence to Current DHS Enforcement Priorities

VIII. Recalibrating DHS Enforcement Priorities: Who Would Be Affected?

IX. Conclusion