In an interview that aired Sunday evening, Donald Trump told CBS News that he would deport 2 million to 3 million undocumented immigrants who he said have criminal records. Those numbers suggest some similarities with President Obama's policy on deportation. As of last year, the Obama administration had deported at least 2.7 million undocumented immigrants, with a focus on those who have committed crimes.
“What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers, we have a lot of these people, probably two million, it could be even three million, we are getting them out of our country or we are going to incarcerate,” the president-elect said on "60 Minutes.”
It was unclear how many people without criminal records Trump intends to deport, or over what period of time. All the same, Muzzafar Chishti, the director of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute's office in New York, said that Trump's comments implied continuity with the current administration.
“What he’s saying is sort of consistent with present policy,” Chishti said, although he added that there were still unanswered questions about Trump's agenda. “Does he mean on Day 1, does he mean per year, or does he mean over 16 years?” Chishti asked. “Frankly, that’s very important to know.”
Trump went on to suggest that the remaining undocumented immigrants might be permitted to stay in the country.
“After the border is secured and after everything gets normalized, we’re going to make a determination,” he said.
Approximately 11 million people are in the country illegally, according to the Pew Research Center. That number has not changed under President Obama, suggesting that new entrants have balanced deportations.
Federal enforcement steadily intensified beginning under President Bill Clinton, following restrictive legislation he signed in 1996. Between 1996 and 1997, the annual number of deportations skyrocketed from 70,000 to 114,000.
Meanwhile, the population of undocumented immigrants was expanding, and by 2007, federal agents were removing more than 300,000 immigrants a year. The increases continued after Obama took office in 2009. By 2012, annual deportations exceeded 400,000.
In the past few years, though, the pace of deportations has slackened. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recorded just 240,000 deportations last year.
Fewer migrants are attempting to cross the border illegally, resulting in fewer apprehensions. Meanwhile, federal agents have focused more of their efforts on locating and removing undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement last year.
Federal data reflect this shift in focus, showing the share of deported immigrants who have criminal convictions has increased from 35 percent when Obama took office to 59 percent last year. In that sense, Obama's policy “is pretty close to what Mr. Trump has said,” Chishti said.
All the same, Obama will have presided over more deportations than any of his predecessors, even without accounting for this year's deportations. President George W. Bush deported just 2 million, and other presidents deported far fewer.
Trump has spoken favorably of Obama's policy on deportation in the past. “President Obama has moved millions of people out,” he said in his final debate with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. “Nobody knows about it. Nobody talks about it, but under Obama, millions of people have been moved out of this country. They've been deported.”
Some economists think the number of undocumented immigrants in the country could potentially increase under Trump. He has proposed punitive tariffs on Mexico, which would limit economic opportunities for Mexican workers in their native country and could encourage more of them to come to the United States, while discouraging those already here from returning home.
Presumably, Trump would have to moderate his policies on trade or more aggressively remove unauthorized immigrants to reduce their overall numbers.
Chishti also noted that Trump was speaking imprecisely when he said that 2 million undocumented immigrants have criminal records. Federal data show that about 1.9 million immigrants are subject to deportation because of criminal convictions, but that figure includes immigrants who are in the country legally.
Chishti's organization estimates the number of undocumented immigrants specifically with criminal convictions is about 820,000.