Smith, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, points out the Obama administration has decided to include removals under a new border security program called the Alien Transfer Exit Program (ATEP) in the official deportation statistics beginning in 2011, citing internal documents his committee has recently obtained. He believes this practice is illegitimate because "there are no penalties or bars attached when illegal immigrants are sent back via ATEP and they can simply attempt re-entry," according to his Aug. 24 statement. The ATEP removals accounted for about 37,000 of the approximately 397,000 immigrants who were deported in 2011, Smith continues. Without them, the deportation numbers for 2011 would actually by lower than 2008's numbers under Bush.
What's the real story behind ATEP? It's a program that started under Bush in 2008 but was ramped up significantly under the Obama administration. The program repatriates certain Mexicans who are caught by border agents "to border ports hundreds of miles away, typically moving people from Arizona to Texas or California," according to a 2012 Congressional Research Service report. It's meant to break the "smuggling cycle" in which border-crossers were simply turned around the the spot where they were caught," allowing them "to easily reconnect with smugglers who would try to bring them across again, sometimes within hours," as the Los Angeles Times wrote in 2011.
By deporting immigrants 1,200 miles or even 2,000 miles away from where they crossed, ATEP is intended to be a deterrent to discourage multiple attempts to cross the border. The border-crossers are also fingerprinted, so if they're caught again trying to cross, the "consequences go up"—they can be repatriated even farther away, to the interior of Mexico, and face "increasingly severe penalties," says Doris Meissner, who was President Clinton's commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and is now a senior fellow at the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute.
So there are more potential consequences than Smith suggests for border-crossers who attempt re-entry after being removed through ATEP. The program is part of a larger effort by the Department of Homeland Security "to ensure that virtually everyone who is apprehended faces 'some type of consequence,' including criminal charges, formal removal, or one of the remote repatriation programs," according to the 2012 CRS report.
That's among the reasons why Meissner believes that it's legitimate for the administration to count the removals under ATEP in the deportation statistics: There is the immediate consequence of being repatriated hundreds of miles away and the threat of further penalties if they try to re-enter, and the program requires far more extensive involvement by immigration officials than the old practice of simply being turned away at the border.
ATEP, however, isn't the only Obama administration deportation strategy that has raised questions. As the Post explained in 2010, immigration officials have resorted to short-term fixes to break annual deportation records, like temporarily extending repatriation programs to meet year-end targets.