Posted on January 12, 2017

ICE Deportations Hit 10-Year Low

Jessica Vaughn, CIS, January 2017

On Friday, December 30, the last work day of the calendar year, on the eve of a holiday weekend, the Department of Homeland Security released a report on ICE enforcement statistics for the 2016 fiscal year, which ended September 30. It’s no wonder that they waited for a day when hardly a soul was paying attention; the numbers for ICE are abysmal, even worse than 2015. If there were an award for government reports that aim to obfuscate and spin, I would nominate this one.

On the same day, DHS also released two editions (here and here) of a new annual report on immigration enforcement from the Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS). The annual enforcement reports traditionally have provided a summary of basic statistics from all three DHS enforcement agencies. This year, under the supervision of new OIS Director Marc Rosenblum, the reports contain only a fraction of the vital statistics that traditionally have been published, and serve mainly as a report card on how well the enforcement agencies adhered to the contrived and restrictive prioritization scheme imposed on them in 2014.

Key findings:

  • Deportations credited to ICE in 2016 increased by 2 percent. All of the increase came from cases of aliens arrested by the Border Patrol, not interior enforcement.
  • Interior deportations fell from 69,478 in 2015 to 65,322 in 2016, out of a population of illegal aliens now estimated at 12 million.
  • Deportations of criminal aliens fell from 63,127 in 2015 to 60,318 in 2016, out of an estimated population of two million criminal aliens.
  • The total number of deportations under the Obama administration is not easily comparable to prior administrations because of the number of border cases included, but it certainly is not record-breaking, as Obama has claimed.
  • DHS maintains that CBP arrests have always been a large share of ICE deportations, but in fact this is a new development under the Obama administration. In prior administrations only a third of deportations credited to ICE were border cases; now about two-thirds are border cases.

In 2016, ICE removed a total of 240,255 aliens. This statistic counts all deportations (removals and returns) that are credited to ICE, and includes both border and interior cases handled by ICE. It is just 2 percent higher (4,842 more) than 2015, when ICE removed 235,413 aliens. The number is 24 percent lower than 2014 and 41 percent lower than the peak number of deportations credited to ICE in 2012. It is the lowest number of deportations credited to ICE since 2006.

What little growth there was in deportations credited to ICE was the result of a higher number of cases turned over to ICE after apprehension by the Border Patrol, not more interior enforcement.

ICE removed 65,332 aliens from the interior in 2016. That is a decline of 6 percent from 2015 and down 73 percent from 2009, the year President Obama took office.

Nearly all (98 percent) of the aliens removed from the interior in 2016 were convicted criminals. The report emphasizes that the percentage of interior removals who are criminals has been increasing, but never mentions that the actual number of criminals removed has been declining.

In 2016, ICE removed 60,318 criminal aliens from the interior. This is a decline of 4 percent from 2015 and a decline of 60 percent from the peak in interior criminal alien removals in 2010.

The main reason for the decline is the Obama administration’s prioritization scheme that has steadily narrowed the types of cases that ICE officers are permitted to pursue. These policies have exempted all but the most egregious alien offenders from deportation. Currently only aliens convicted of felonies, significant misdemeanors, or three lesser misdemeanors are considered priorities, and exceptions are allowed in many cases, such as if the alien has acquired a family or other community ties here.


But counting only removals as deportations presents a misleading picture of the level of enforcement. Removals are just one form of the deportation process that can be executed by any of the three DHS enforcement agencies (ICE, Border Patrol, and CBP officers at the port of entry). All three enforcement agencies also can process deportable aliens as a return (sometimes known as voluntary return), which is a lesser consequence. In general most border deportations are processed as returns and most interior deportations are processed as removals, but in recent years many more aliens apprehended at the border have been turned over to ICE for a brief period of detention and then removed in recent years, in a departure from the traditional “you catch ’em, you clean ’em” policies, where the arresting agency typically handles the deportation process. In addition, illegal border-crossers who have been removed previously, or who are prosecuted for smuggling or other crimes are turned over to ICE for processing. Under these scenarios, the Border Patrol will count the case as an apprehension, which is their marquee enforcement metric, and ICE will count the case as a deportation.

Under Obama, a much larger number of Border Patrol cases were transferred to ICE for processing than had been the case under prior administrations. In 2008, the last year of the George W. Bush administration, just over a third of deportations credited to ICE were border cases, and two-thirds were interior cases. In 2016, more than two-thirds of the deportation cases credited to ICE were border cases, and less than a third were interior cases.

Thus a comparison of removal numbers alone is not meaningful or sufficient to evaluate the relative deportation performance of the Obama administration. Focusing only on removal numbers produces an inflated picture of enforcement.

For a more accurate apples-to-apples comparison of enforcement from year to year, it is more appropriate to examine interior deportations and border deportations as separate and distinct types of enforcement. As noted above, the interior deportations have declined considerably since 2010. Neither the Border Patrol nor CBP publishes the total number of deportations executed, and many of the cases are transferred to ICE, so year-by-year comparisons of border deportations alone are impossible using open source statistics. However, it is possible to compare total deportations executed by all immigration agencies using figures on removals and returns that have been tracked by the immigration agency since 1892, and now appear in the Yearbook.

The Obama administration has completed a total of 5.3 million deportations, counting both interior and border cases. That is a little over half the number of deportations under the George W. Bush administration. The true record for deportations was set by the Clinton administration, which completed 12.3 million deportations.