These would-be immigrants accept this sanction that forgoes a court appearance before an immigration judge because formal removal — in which the U.S. government runs them through legal proceedings and pays for their return to their home country — would result in a multi-year bar (five to 20 years) on their eligibility to legally reenter the United States. Critics deride this policy “as catch and release.” The consequences of a return are much less harsh than a formal removal because the returned immigrant could come back legally, and presumably illegally, at any time.
Thus, comparing the deportation statistics across different presidential administrations is dicey because it is unclear what categories of people are actually being counted and categorized. Moreover, different administrations choose to emphasize different statistics. Dara Lind notes that the Bush administration seems to have reported removals and returns together, but Obama’s administration has emphasized only its number of removals.
Meanwhile, many media reports continue to use the term “deportation” when they mean either return or removal or some subset of those. The Department of Homeland Security that issues official statistics must now try to retrofit new legal categories to old data, and even it cannot excise the term deportation altogether because pre-1996, there were, in fact, deportations.
Confusion about terminology helps explain the conflicting accounts cited above. The aforementioned New York Times article focuses on return numbers. But the Economist is also right, because if you combine the Obama’s return and removal numbers, he is well over the controversial 2 million mark.
This confusion enables political spin, too. If you want to portray Obama as weak on enforcement, use the removal numbers, which, compared to his predecessors, are lower. If you want to make Obama look tougher on enforcement, combine the return and removal numbers (like George W. Bush apparently did) or use the now meaningless “deportation”; both moves would conflate return and removal — and boost the overall number of expulsions.
But don’t expect these nuances to make it into political discourse anytime soon. Way back in 1987, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit described immigration law as “second in complexity only to the internal revenue code.” It would appear little has changed.
CORRECTION: The original post claimed that Obama had de-emphasized removals and concentrated on returns and that the ratio of his removals to returns was skewed toward returns compared to his predecessors. That claim is not correct because based on DHS’s data, (Table 39: Aliens Removed and Returned, FY 1892-2012) his cumulative numbers since taking office show Obama has removed a total of 1,974,688 people and returned 1,609,055 others. There have been more returns than removals only in FY 2009 and 2010. Moreover, comparing across administrations is not wise given the changes in law and counting procedures.