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An Immigration Reformer Defends Obama on Deportations

An immigration reform advocate takes a different view on labeling Obama as deporter in chief.
Image: U.S. Border Patrol agents detain undocumented immigrants
U.S. Border Patrol agents detain undocumented immigrants near the U.S.-Mexico border on April 11, 2013 near Mission, Texas. John Moore / Getty Images, file

As the chorus calling President Barack Obama “deporter in chief” has grown louder, the founder of a progressive think tank has been trying to spread a different refrain.

It goes like this: If you are an immigrant illegally in the country with no criminal record and you don’t leave the country, you are under virtually no threat of deportation under Obama's Administration. Moreover, the government has been increasingly stopping people from crossing illegally into the U.S. - many of them not for the first time - before they disappear into the country’s interior.

Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democratic Network think tank and Democratic consultant, said he reached this conclusion in a four-year border project. He’s issued his findings on the web, but he said getting others to echo them has been difficult amid GOP refusal to take up immigration reform, frustration over deportations and competing views on the numbers.

“The demonizations (of Obama) are unfair and actually obscuring the reality of everything that’s going on here,” Rosenberg said. “Things have gotten far better. Groups have fought and they won. They’ve changed the system.”

Previously, immigration raids cast a wide net and sent numerous illegal border crossers out of the country without consequence. In its place, said Rosenberg, is a system that focuses more on violent criminals, drunk drivers and others with criminal records. It also attaches punishments, including prison time, to people caught crossing the border illegally, regardless of whether they have a criminal record, he said.

Why is Rosenberg singing a different song than everyone else?

First, some basics. In official deportation lingo, people either are “removals” or "returns."

People “removed” are captured by law enforcement and taken out under official court order. People who are “returned” are captured and released to Mexico or Canada. If you are removed, you are barred from returning legally for a period of time, but if you are returned, you face no such prohibitions.

Rosenberg said his research shows the overall deportations total - which includes “returns” and “removals” - has fallen from 1.54 million in 2001 to 649,352 in 2012.

Considered separately, removals more than doubled from 189,016 in 2001 to 419,384 in 2012, while returns dropped in the same period from 1.35 million to 229,968.

The 2 million deportations often cited by activists apply to removals. Increasingly, people who were ordered out of the country and come back illegally are among the removals, since re-entering the country after having been deported is a felony and the Administration is cracking down on this.

The Obama administration removed and returned 3.2 million through 2012, while Bush's total over eight years was 10.3 million, Rosenberg said.

Almost all of those deported last year were either convicted criminals or people caught trying to enter the country illegally at the border, Rosenberg said.

Only 10,336 immigrants who had not committed a crime and were not caught crossing the border, were removed or returned in the 2013 fiscal year that ended last September, Rosenberg found. That compares to 150,000 in 2009.

“According to the ICE data, if you live in the interior (of the U.S.) and are undocumented, without a criminal record, and don't leave the country, there’s almost no chance you can be deported,” Rosenberg said.

“According to the ICE data, if you live in the interior (of the U.S.) and are undocumented, without a criminal record, and don't leave the country, there’s almost no chance you can be deported,” Rosenberg said.

A recent report by the Department of Justice that deportations ordered by courts have dropped 43 percent backs Rosenberg's findings, he said.

This conclusion aligns to a degree with what the immigration hawk group Center for Immigration Studies has been arguing, that Obama’s enforcement numbers are down, particularly in the interior.

But Rosenberg said there is an important difference. His review finds that the administration’s priority setting on who to deport is working.

“How can you argue deporting murderers over moms is bad? That’s the argument Republicans are making. They don’t believe murderers and moms are any different,” Rosenberg said.

The administration has been accused of cooking the numbers, since ICE has been counting in their removal numbers those apprehended by Customs and Border Patrol agents. Critics say this is done to inflate Obama’s enforcement record.

But Rosenberg said the critics overlook a key point: that the administration has been deliberately trying to stop the revolving door of migrants crossing the border illegally multiple times, and this has long been a strategy of the federal government.

While apprehensions are down because fewer people are crossing the border, the economic downturn can’t explain all of the drop, since the decline has continued as the country has moved into recovery. Net migration from Mexico is at zero at this point versus at 700,000 a year under Bush.

All considered, said Rosenberg, Obama’s immigration policies are defensible. “This guy’s enforcement is humane and more aggressive and is a better immigration system,” he said.