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Immigration Enforcement in Sharp Decline, Despite Obama Administration’s Claims

Editor's Note: In the February issue of Townhall Magazine, where this article first appeared, Jessica M. Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies explains how ICE is now releasing more illegal aliens than it is arresting.


After nearly a year of a debate, Congress is at a stalemate over immigration reform. The Senate passed a bill that is unacceptable to the House, with too lenient an amnesty, too much new immigration, and too little enforcement, making it too costly for American workers. The Republican majority in the House wants to tackle the issue piece by piece, arguing that the first order of business should be shoring up enforcement and border security.

According to closely-held metrics kept by the two main enforcement agencies in the Department of Homeland Security, House Republicans have a legitimate point. Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher recently disclosed at a conference that his agents arrested 420,000 illegal border crossers in 2013, marking the second straight year of increases and suggesting that significantly more people are trying to enter illegally over the southwest border, especially in South Texas. This admission upset Obama’s political appointees at DHS, who had not yet decided how to explain this glaring contradiction of their claims that illegal immigration is a thing of the past.

Meanwhile, enforcement in the interior has fallen off alarmingly in the last several years. Leaked internal statistics show that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are arresting many fewer illegal aliens inside the country, and removals from the interior have declined more than 35 percent since 2009. Arrests declined in every part of the country, with the biggest drops in Georgia and the Carolinas, where 62 percent fewer illegal aliens were picked up It’s not because there are fewer illegal aliens to arrest. Experts agree that the size of the illegal population has not budged much in several years from about 11.5 million, and seems to be growing. It includes nearly 900,000 people like the president’ s uncle, who have been ordered removed at least once, but who refuse to leave because no one makes them.


These numbers call into question the Obama administration’s claims of “record” deportations and “smarter” enforcement that they say surpass all previous administrations. These claims have been a key talking point for proponents of amnesty and the Senate bill, which sought to undercut enforcement in numerous ways. Advocates for illegal aliens, including the newly legalized “Dreamers,” have taken to the streets and to the halls of the Capitol, staging vigils, confrontations and even disrupting the lighting of the Capitol Christmas tree, demanding a stop to all deportations.

As it turns out, the administration’s claims of record deportations are “a little deceptive,” as the president once told a group of Latino journalists. A little! Internal documents made public as part of a lawsuit by ICE officers against their own agency confirm that ICE has been padding its deportation numbers by taking credit for removing tens of thousands of illegal border crossers who were arrested by Border Patrol. They were held in ICE detention centers for just a few hours before removal. These cases represented about half of all deportations in the “record” counts of the last two years.

This is how the administration has been able to cover up plummeting interior arrests and give the false impression that they are vigorously enforcing immigration laws. In 2013, ICE agents encountered more than 700,000 aliens who could have been removed (which is a record, thanks to new resources from Congress). Most were found in jails. But they took action against fewer than 200,000; meaning that ICE is now releasing more illegal aliens—including criminal aliens—than it is arresting.


This smoke and mirrors game is taking a toll on public safety and the rule of law. As ICE fills its scarce detention beds with illegal border crossers who could be more expeditiously dealt with by Border Patrol, political leaders in Washington order agents in the field to turn a blind eye to most illegal aliens living in our communities. Minor criminals, even chronic re- offenders, reckless or drunk drivers, those with families, those rejected for green cards, anyone claiming to have been brought as a child, and relatives of veterans are all considered off-limits for enforcement.

The official rationale for these policies, known as “prosecutorial discretion,” is to keep ICE agents focused on removing dangerous criminal aliens rather than “harmless” illegal workers. But pols in ICE headquarters have created so many exceptions to the law that criminal removals have dropped too. In North Carolina alone, authorities have lost track of more than 3,000 illegal alien ex-cons that ICE failed to remove. Inevitably, they will find new victims.

The Obama administration’s deliberate suppression of immigration enforcement has understandably chilled enthusiasm among House Republicans for a massive comprehensive bill that has to be passed to learn what’s in it. Instead lawmakers should pass targeted measures to boost interior enforcement and restore credibility to the laws we have.


Jessica M. Vaughan is the Director of Policy Studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based research institute.

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