During the fifth* Republican presidential debate on Tuesday night, Ted Cruz argued that he didn't support the legalization of people who immigrated to the United States illegally and that securing the border would help curtail the problem. He added some bits of data for emphasis.
"What you do is you enforce the law," he said. "That means you stop the Obama administration's policy of releasing criminal illegal aliens. Do you know how many aliens Bill Clinton deported? 12 million. Do you know how many illegal aliens George W. Bush deported? 10 million."
Those figures aren't accurate. And by the government's numbers, both Clinton and Bush have deported fewer people than President Obama.
Every year, the Department of Homeland Security releases figures on the number of enforcement actions it has taken. There are a number of categories of actions and a number of ways in which the data is broken down. But for our purposes, we'll focus on two of the categories: Removals and returns.
"Returns" is a term the agency uses to describe, in its wording, "the confirmed movement of an inadmissible or deportable alien out of the United States not based on an order of removal." In other words, people who could have been deported but who left of their own volition. "Removals," on the other hand, is the "compulsory and confirmed movement of an inadmissible or deportable alien out of the United States based on an order of removal." In other words, it's when the government kicks someone out of the country. It's a deportation.
Historically, the number of returns has been larger than the number of removals, though that's changed over the last few years. In 2014, DHS made 414,481 removals and tracked 162,814 returns. The annual data for each shows the number of returns tapering off as the number of deportations has increased.
What Cruz did, it seems, is use the number of returns for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush instead of the number of removals. Under Clinton, there were only about 870,000 removals/deportations, but 11.4 million returns. Under Bush, the numbers were about 2 million deportations and 8.3 million returns.
Under Obama, the number of deportations through 2014 hit a new high -- while the number of returns is lower than at any point since the Ford administration.
As we noted last month, net migration from Mexico has dropped into the negatives since the second term of the George W. Bush administration. More Mexicans have migrated out of the United States than into it, at a pace that accelerated after the recession. At the same time, cracking down on people who are here illegally has continued to be a central part of American politics. That helps explain the disparity under Obama.
Under the Obama administration, some actions are included as removals/deportations that once would not have been. In the past, people caught trying to cross the southern border with Mexico were sent back into that country but not counted as removals. Under Obama, they have been, spurring a significantly higher count of deportations.
To Cruz's broader point, the percentage of deportations of those with criminal convictions has also increased under Obama.
There's a level of complexity here that's unavoidable, of course, though the release of annual statistics makes it easier to compare numbers than is often the case with government data. Cruz's implied point, though -- that Obama had been lax in contrast to his predecessors -- is fairly easy to refute.
* Why do we keep calling this the fifth debate? It was the tenth debate, given that each debate day has had two debates. Is it so that we don't all collectively lose our minds about the fact that we've spent the equivalent of a full work week watching presidential debates over the last four-plus months? Because if that's why, it's not going to work.