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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Behind the Rising Deportations of ‘Criminals’

In his immigration speech, President Obama said “deportations of criminals are up 80 percent.” But an independent analysis of deportation data found the increase is driven largely by the removal of individuals “whose most serious conviction was an immigration or traffic violation.”

In fact, “the number of individuals deported who have been convicted of any criminal offense apart from an immigration or traffic violation has actually declined,” according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, which collects and analyzes immigration data.

The president made his remarks during his nationally television speech from the White House announcing a series of executive actions that will provide deportation relief to 5 million people living illegally in the United States and give them the authorization to work.

Obama, Nov. 20: Even as we are a nation of immigrants, we’re also a nation of laws. Undocumented workers broke our immigration laws, and I believe that they must be held accountable -– especially those who may be dangerous. That’s why, over the past six years, deportations of criminals are up 80 percent. And that’s why we’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids. We’ll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day.

The White House fact sheet on the president’s immigration plan also cited the 80 percent figure. “By setting priorities and focusing its enforcement resources, the Obama Administration has already increased the removal of criminals by more than 80%.”

We were curious about the 80 percent jump in deportations of criminals and went to one of the most respected sources of immigration data and analysis: the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. It turns out that TRAC has already vetted this exact claim.

On April 8, 2014, TRAC published a detailed analysis of 2.3 million deportations enforced by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from 2008 to 2013. The organization used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the data.

Specifically, TRAC examined the Obama administration’s claim that is has had “a high degree of success in achieving its objective of deporting ‘convicted criminals.'”

The TRAC report confirms that Obama’s 80 percent figure is accurate, but inflated. TRAC said there has been an 87 percent increase from fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2013 in the deportation of those classified by ICE as “convicted criminals.” But that’s because ICE uses an “exceedingly broad definition of criminal behavior,” the report said.

TRAC report, April 8, 2014: ICE currently uses an exceedingly broad definition of criminal behavior: even very minor infractions are included. For example, anyone with a traffic ticket for exceeding the speed limit on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway who sends in their check to pay their fine has just entered ICE’s “convicted criminal” category. If the same definitions were applied to every citizen — rather than just to noncitizens — available evidence (see TRAC’s February 2012 report) suggests that the majority of U.S. citizens would be considered convicted criminals.

The 87 percent increase in the deportation of “convicted criminals” was driven almost exclusively by “those with a traffic violation (up 191 percent) and individuals convicted of immigration offenses (up 167 percent).”

By comparison, the deportation of those with serious crimes fell. “For example, the number of deportees convicted of vehicle theft was down by 27 percent. Robbery, burglary and forgery categories saw only a small increase — up 4 to 6 percent over this six year period. Although their numbers were small, declines also occurred for individuals convicted of arson (down 1 percent), embezzlement (down 14 percent) and bribery (down 41 percent).”

“In fact, after Director Morton [Obama’s former ICE Director John Morton] on June 30 of 2010 directed a renewed focus on finding and deporting ‘convicted criminals’ who posed a serious threat to public safety or endangered national security, the number of individuals deported who have been convicted of any criminal offense apart from an immigration or traffic violation has actually declined,” the TRAC report concluded.

In fiscal 2013, for example, TRAC found that half of those deported committed no crime more serious than an immigration or traffic violation, while only 12 percent “committed a serious or ‘Level 1’ offense based on the agency’s own definitions.” Level 1 offenses include homicide, kidnapping, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, among other serious crimes.

We asked the White House for comment, but did not receive an immediate response. If we receive one we will update this item.

— Eugene Kiely