By: Roxane Ramos
Every year, the Department of Homeland Security releases a report detailing deportation and other statistics. From those numbers, we can determine whether deportations are rising or falling. But there are definitions—and implications—behind the figures.
The statistics seem straightforward enough. Even so, some sources report that deportations are on the rise at the same time others report that they are declining. How are these statistics counted, who is included, and what do they mean?
Most often, the deportation figures we see in newspaper articles, fact sheets and government reports are the total number of “removals.” Removals, according to Department of Homeland Security, refer to “the compulsory and confirmed movement of an inadmissible or deportable alien out of the United States based on an order of removal.” Essentially, removals are the forced deportation of undocumented immigrants when they are found to be in the U.S. in violation of any immigration laws. This is deportation through formal channels, involving days or weeks in a detention facility, a hearing before a judge or officer, a permanent record, a 5– to 10-year ban on re-entry, and because re-entry is now deemed a felony offense, possible incarceration if the deported individual crosses into the U.S. again and slim chances of gaining future legal status.
A second way that people are made to leave the U.S. is through “returns.” Returns are “the confirmed movement of an inadmissible or deportable alien out of the United States not based on an order of removal.” Once called “voluntary departures,” these are less formal and the consequences, less harsh with fewer repercussions upon re-entry. A person may be allowed some time to take care of matters, tie up loose ends before leaving the U.S., and arrange for returning to their country of origin; they are not detained, have no hearing, and are subject to shorter bans to re-entry.
Many organizations serving migrants count both removals and returns in total deportation because it reflects a more accurate picture of the impact of U.S. immigration laws. In both cases, many undocumented immigrants are required to leave family members and the homes they have made in the U.S., often to return to situations characterized by severe economic hardship, life-threatening violence, or political repression.
Deportation statistics over the last three administrations reveal the shifting impact of immigration policies. Total removals and returns were much higher during the Clinton and Bush administrations, and this total has decreased dramatically during the Obama administration, as much as a third of the totals in earlier years (see chart). But removals—the method that imposes stricter penalties for re-entry, longer bans and potential separation from family, with less likelihood of obtaining eventual legal status—have soared. In 2013, removals totaled 438,421, ten times the number in 1992.
Much of this derives from changes in immigration laws starting in 1996 (and 1997 removals are almost double that of the previous year). These laws have expanded the number of offenses that can result in removal, instituted an “expedited removal” system involving immigration officials rather than a judge, and increased the enforcement budget. At the same time (and no doubt due to these policy changes), migration from Mexico has declined sharply, and currently net immigration from Mexico is zero; the U.S. is deporting as many migrants each year as the number who enter the country without documentation.
On the one hand, the overall decline in total removals and returns means that fewer individuals and families are impacted by deportation than in the 1990s and 2000s. But with removals outstripping returns since 2011 (and now more than double), the toll on those immigrants who are deported is much greater. It means more people held in detention and for longer periods (a Congressional mandate requires the Department of Homeland Security to maintain a quota of 34,000 each day in their facilities, at a cost of $120 per day per person, paid mostly to outsourced private companies). It means migrants who may have some legal recourse falling through the cracks if they do not have access to advocacy services or sound legal advice. It means, in many cases, returning to the poverty, repression or violence of one’s country of origin, with escalating penalties for re-entry. It means extended, or even permanent, separation of families, and greater likelihood that important life events will not be shared—graduations, marriages, illnesses, deaths. The cost in human terms is incalculable.
It is in this environment that the Kino Border Initiative was founded with the mission of aiding and advocating for deported migrants, collecting and providing information about the migrant struggle, and working toward compassionate immigration reform. In the end, what the numbers tell us is that these efforts are critical—to offer options to those who seek a better life, to keep families together, to humanize the border—and that they must continue.